Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Halt and catch fire

There's a long tradition of geek humor - most of it incredibly cynical of technology's failures.  The Jargon File is perhaps the greatest compendium of this oral tradition, and includes gems like this on Magic Smoke:

magic smoke: n.

A substance trapped inside IC packages that enables them to function (also called blue smoke; this is similar to the archaic phlogiston hypothesis about combustion). Its existence is demonstrated by what happens when a chip burns up — the magic smoke gets let out, so it doesn't work any more. See smoke test, let the smoke out.

Usenetter Jay Maynard tells the following story: “Once, while hacking on a dedicated Z80 system, I was testing code by blowing EPROMs and plugging them in the system, then seeing what happened. One time, I plugged one in backwards. I only discovered that after I realized that Intel didn't put power-on lights under the quartz windows on the tops of their EPROMs — the die was glowing white-hot. Amazingly, the EPROM worked fine after I erased it, filled it full of zeros, then erased it again. For all I know, it's still in service. Of course, this is because the magic smoke didn't get let out.

Compare the original phrasing of Murphy's Law.
One of the jokes that I remember from back in the '80s* was the Assembly Code instruction HCF: Halt and Catch Fire.  You would program this when you really, really wanted the system to stop - and maybe even let the Magic Smoke out.

Well the AMC Television network has created a show "Halt And Catch Fire".  I don't watch much TV, but may need to Tivo this.  From IMDB:
Set in the early 1980s, series dramatizes the personal computing boom through the eyes of a visionary, an engineer and a prodigy whose innovations directly confront the corporate behemoths of the time. Their personal and professional partnership will be challenged by greed and ego while charting the changing culture in Texas' Silicon Prairie.

* You damn kids, get offa my lawn!


Dave H said...

I wonder what kind of EPROMs Maynard was using. I plugged in many 2716 and 2732 types backwards and they never lit up.

I used to have a list of machine instructions we wish we had. HCF was one of them. There were others like PO (punch operator), MO (mount operator), and the one I really wish we had, DTRT (do the right thing).

lelnet said...

Been watching that show, and it's pretty good, actually. I'd reccomend it. It's at least as well-written as Mad Men (but without the smoking), or Breaking Bad (but without the violence, or the drugs, or the ludicrous core premise that a public school teacher doesn't have awesome health insurance, or -- ironically -- the comic relief).

Eagle said...

Dave H, there were several "canonical lists" way back when usenet newsgroups were the primary inter-corporate collaborative discussion tool (yes, there was a time before "the web", grasshopper).

Here's a pointer to an assembler opcode list that came up by a quick keyword search:

My favorite was always the DWIM catchall instruction. It was the last-ditch effort at making your code work after all else failed.

(DWIM: Do What I Mean)

Dave H said...

yes, there was a time before "the web", grasshopper

I know, I was there. For me it was Fidonet. While the military, defense contractors, and universities were playing around with this ARPANET thingy the rest of us were driving smartmodem sales with BBSes.

Although the opcode list we had was a photocopy somebody brought from his previous job. That's one thing sneakernet could do long before electronic networks were available - it could deliver paper.

Eagle said...


'nuff said

cryptical said...

This last week the edgy hacker gal was reading a magazine article about the 414 gang and commented that they compromised "Dee Eee Cee VMS OS"

Pretty sure even back then it was DEC (pronounced deck).

Pretty good show though, most of the technical details seem pretty accurate as remembered through the mists of time :)

Rick C said...

That mnemonic list reminds me of an old joke. Two IBM engineers are talking about how they're running out of three-letter opcodes, and they're going to have to start using FLAs. "What are FLAs, Four-Letter Acronyms?" "No, Field-extended three Letter Acronyms."

Unknown said...

my wife asked me to watch it with her so I could explain some of the tech stuff going on.
We'll pause the show so I can explain and remind that she used to play Adventure on an TI thermal printer terminal back(mumble) years ago.
As some others have said, it's at least relatively accurate and we've been enjoying it.