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8 Tech Slang Terms Made Popular by TV Shows 'Halt and Catch Fire,' 'Breaking Bad,' & More

By Mark Maurer | Indiewire June 2, 2014 at 2:37PM

The tech-savvy viewers tuning into the new AMC drama "Halt and Catch Fire" are in luck, because programming jargon is more abundant in popular culture than one might think.
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Lee Pace in "Halt and Catch Fire" on AMC
James Minchin III/AMC Lee Pace in "Halt and Catch Fire"

The tech-savvy viewers tuning into the new AMC drama "Halt and Catch Fire" are in luck, because programming jargon is more abundant in popular culture than one might think. "Halt and Catch Fire," set during the dawn of personal computing in the early 1980s, is the latest TV series to employ a coder's vernacular, but the television world and the hacker's world have been crossing wires for some time.

There are limits: The book "The New Hacker's Dictionary" notes that a hacker's TV viewing palette rarely goes beyond cartoons and "the occasional cheesy old swashbuckler movie." Thus, with a few exceptions, it's the Smurfs, Ren and Stimpy and similar cultural fixtures which have inadvertently influenced tech-speak, and vice versa.

1. Halt and Catch Fire (HCF)

The title "Halt and Catch Fire" refers to machine code instructions to obliterate a potentially successful operation; hardware designers primarily used the instructions for testing purposes. HCF was best known as an operation code in the Motorola 6800 microprocessor from the 1970s, but a more dramatic, perhaps symbolic definition has arrived, courtesy of the pilot episode: "An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained."

2. The Heisenbug

Breaking Bad

Actions have consequences: The saying is not only true for Walter White of "Breaking Bad," but also for anyone who tries to stave off the Heisenbug, a software glitch that sounds a lot like his alter ego in name. The bug, named after German physicist Werner Heisenberg in the 1980s, grows more unpredictable with each effort to fix it. The direct origin is the real-life Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which states that physicists change the behavior of quantum participles merely by examining it. On "Breaking Bad," that high school science lesson inspires Walt's choice of drug-kingpin pseudonym.

3. Yak Shaving

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology student commandeered this term from an episode of the 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon "The Ren & Stimpy Show," and gave it a double meaning. Yak Shaving Day is a fictional, bizarre alternative to Christmas in which the Shaven Yak coasts through the sky on an enchanted canoe -- observant families deck their walls with disposable diapers and pack coleslaw into boots. The programming term refers to the many tedious tasks that are required before the official start of a project.

4. "GUI Interface," "IRC" and the CBS dramas that got them wrong

Tech language has tremendously evolved over the years, but several high-rated prime-time network shows' grasp of that language has not. On "NCIS," two characters typed on a keyboard at the same time to stave off a network-wide hacking attack -- a problem solved when Mark Harmon unplugs a single computer, while "CSI: NY" got some heat for the bumbling line -- "I'll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address." And an FBI consultant on the show "Numb3rs" describes the hugely popular program Internet Relay Chat (IRC) as a place where "hackers talk when they don't want to be overheard." She adds that she speaks Leet, aka l33t or 1337, an alternative English alphabet that is not spoken aloud. All three clips have racked up over a million YouTube views apiece.

5. "Cloud-based data solutions," "multi-platform functionality," "minimal, message-oriented transport layers," etc.

Christopher Evan Welch in "Silicon Valley" on HBO
HBO Christopher Evan Welch in "Silicon Valley" on HBO

The HBO satire "Silicon Valley" -- which wrapped its first season Sunday – is loaded with clunky terminology that, to a group of tech entrepreneurs, probably sounds routine.

6. Gonkulator

Not to be confused with the electric guitar pedal, this term is sometimes a descriptor for the worst piece of computer hardware that you own. It's a reference to the "gonculator," a top-secret but ultimately worthless electronic device on a fourth-season episode of "Hogan's Heroes" from 1968.

7. Vulcan nerve pinch

"Star Trek: The Original Series" introduced this now-iconic move by Spock and other Vulcans, wherein pinching a nerve on a human's neck will render him or her unconscious. The figurative pressure point for computers is naturally the Control-Alt-Delete function: The term originated with users of Commodore Amiga home computers in the 1980s. To reboot, users engaged in the "Vulcan nerve pinch" by pressing down Control, Left Amiga (also known as Commodore) and Right Amiga all at once.

8. Smurf attack

The Smurfs have gone through many iterations, but from 1981 to 1989 on NBC, the animated TV version was a Saturday-morning staple. Then, in 1997, a hacker known as TFreak unveiled a denial-of-service tool called smurf.c, recalling the iconic Belgian comic strip about pint-sized, blue-colored people who inhabit mushroom houses. A smurf attack, unrelated to the franchise, involves a Smurf tool attacking a victim's computer by sending spoofed ping messages and making the network unresponsive. The term "smurfing" also bears a negative connotation, in referring to experienced "Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness" players who hustle amateur players in a matchup. The real Smurf family, returning to the screen in "Smurfs 3" next summer, would likely never behave in such a way.


This article is related to: Television, Halt and Catch Fire, Halt and Catch Fire, Breaking Bad, Silicon Valley, Star Trek






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