Mastergeek Theater

Various movies, some documentary and some fictional, chronicle the history and social impact of our field. I thought it would be fun to watch some of these as a group and then talk about them. All are pre-screened by me, so you know they’re good.

This list is also available as a public list on IMDb.

1941-1945: Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes

1941-1945: Codebreakers—The Secret Genius of World War Two

You may think you know the story already: Bletchley Park is where Alan Turing developed techniques that were used to crack the Nazi’s Enigma cipher machine (on which DES was based, incidentally). But the effort that really won the war is a story largely untold with heroes mostly unsung, because they were required to hold it in secrecy throughout the rest of their lives after the war ended. This documentary tells the story of how the brilliant rookie mathematician William Tutte came up with a technique to crack the much more sophisticated “Tunny” cipher, and how engineer Tommy Flowers designed and built the world’s first semi-programmable digital computer to automate the technique, shortening the war by months or years and playing a key role in turning the tide in favor of the Allies.

This video is currently available on the CuriosityStream boutique channel; not sure where else.

If you’re interested in learning more:

  • Thomas Haigh. “Colossal Genius: Tutte, Flowers, and a Bad Imitation of Turing.” CACM 60(1), January 2017, pp. 29–35. An entertaining yet substantive description of what really happened at Bletchley Park, couched in a critique of the historical inaccuracies of the 2015 movie The Imitation Game, which the author assumes is the basis of most popular knowledge of those events.
  • Jack Copeland. Colossus: The First Electronic Computer. Oxford University Press, New York, 2006. A compendium of analysis, reprinted historical documents and memoir. Contains Tutte’s own description of his breakthroughs against Tunny.

1942-1950: Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII

Looking back on a little-known part of the war effort that recruited female mathematicians to work as “computers” for the U.S. Army during World War II, this eye-opening documentary sheds light on some remarkable unsung American heroines. From developing ballistics tables to programming the first electronic computer designed to improve Army efficiency, these top-secret “Rosies” made critical wartime contributions.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1941-1957: The Queen of Code

This is a well-done (albeit all too brief!) 16-minute mini-documentary about Admiral Grace Murray Hopper’s pivotal role in the development of high level languages, and a mini-portrait of this remarkable character. Available on Vimeo.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1955-1975: The Real Revolutionaries

The quintessential—and original—Silicon Valley story of the “traitorous eight” engineers who left Shockley Semiconductor, the first Silicon Valley tech company, to found Fairchild Semiconductor, where the integrated circuit was not only invented but turned into a commercial phenomenon.  In time, most of the Fairchild Eight left to form their own spin-offs (the “Fairchildren”), including Intel (Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore) and AMD (Jerry Sanders), inventing the distinctive Silicon Valley corporate culture in the process.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1961-1969:  Moon Machines—The Apollo Guidance Computer

During Project Apollo, the US managed to land astronauts on the moon and return them safely to Earth, not just once but six times.  How did we do that with a guidance computer based on 1960’s technology, whose most innovative hardware feature was the solid-state NOR gate?  How did people program a machine whose ROM consisted of long “ropes” of magnetic cores strung onto braids of thin filaments?  What kind of UI can you get when the input consists of a 19-key keypad (big enough for astronauts wearing spacesuits) and the output consists of five LED 7-segment displays and a handful of “idiot light” indicators? Most intriguingly, this was the project that made NASA realize that software wasn’t an afterthought to be dealt with following the hardware design, but the “pacing item” on the critical path for a complex embedded system.  Dr. Margaret Hamilton, the Director of Software for Project Apollo, is credited with inventing the term “software engineering.” In 2016 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor.

As a bonus, you can not only check out the Virtual Apollo Guidance Computer, an app that does hardware-level emulation of this computer, but also view the actual source code on GitHub. (It’s a little known fact that all the source code for every Apollo mission is in the public domain, having been developed by a civilian agency at taxpayer expense. NASA intern Chris Garry has begun uploading it to GitHub.) Virtual AGC can be used to run the same bits the astronauts ran on each Apollo mission.

1960-1980: Digital_Man/Digital_World

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), an engineering-driven startup spun out of MIT in the late 1950s, made computers affordable for purchase by “the masses” at a time when most computers were rented from giants like IBM. The company essentially invented the minicomputer product category and carved out an entire new market segment for itself; ironically, it would be on the receiving end of this same realignment when PCs arrived in the late 1970s. This film is a profile of both the company’s founder, Ken Olsen, and its revolutionary products.

1975-1991: Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (released 1995)

Travel back to the 80’s with snarky Silicon Valley pundit and gossip columnist—er, podcaster—Robert X. Cringely, to learn about the roots of the PC revolution, the early days of the microprocessor, and how we ended up with a computer on every desktop.  One of the best accessible treatments of the story of the rise of the PC, though on a couple of occasions the narrative wanders into stereotypes of gender and personality that (thankfully) raise more eyebrows today than they did in 1995.

  • Part 1: Impressing Their Friends (the Altair 8800, the birth of Microsoft, the first PCs)
  • Part 2: Riding the Bear (the PC takes over, IBM vs. Microsoft)
  • Part 3: Great Artists Steal (the story of the Mac and Windows)

If you’re interested in learning more:

  • Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely, the book on which the miniseries is based
  • Insanely Great, by Steven Levy.  The story of how the Mac came to be.
  • iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon, by Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith.  Autobiographical account of the founding and early days of Apple, and the creation of the landmark Apple ][ computer.

1973-1982: Easy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari (released 2017)

“A game should be easy to learn and hard to master”—some have attributed this as Bushnell’s Law, for Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell. This documentary focuses on Atari’s breakthrough contributions to both arcade and (more significantly) home video gaming, from its hubristic beginning to its demise at the hands of management who didn’t understand technology or their market. It’s hard to watch this without thinking of Apple and the Sculley years. A bit long (1:50) but worthwhile for Atari completists, including interview footage with Al Alcorn (UCB EECS ‘71), Eugene Jarvis (UCB EECS ‘76), Manny Gerard, Ray Kassar, Howard Warshaw, and other names well known to those familiar with the Atari saga.

1977-1983: 8 Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars (released 2016)

The turbulent and fascinating story of Commodore, whose ruthless chairman, Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel, successfully pursued his obsession of making “computers for the masses, not the classes.” The Commodore VIC-20, the first computer to sell a million units, was a price/performance breakthrough that put a well-constructed (if underpowered) color computer within the reach of “the masses”. Its successor, the price-shattering Commodore 64, remains the best-selling personal computer of all time. But Tramiel’s unconventional way of running a company—“business is war”—made him a complex and sometimes difficult man to work for.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1980-1989: GET LAMP (released 2010)

“Before the first-person shooter, there was the second-person thinker.” Text adventures, or Interactive Fiction (IF), is one of the oldest categories of interactive entertainment. (Never heard of it? Read this 1-page intro.) This documentary looks at the rise and subsequent disappearance of a fascinating subgenre whose potential perhaps remains underappreciated. As a gaming scholar wrote in 2000: “Lured by the siren song of ever-improving graphics power, terrified by the risks involved with truly unique ideas in gaming, the [gaming] industry is collectively stumbling along a path well worn by Hollywood.” Watch this documentary and learn about the road not taken.

As a bonus, you can also play the original (1975) text adventure, ADVENT, compiled from the original FORTRAN source code). We may also play classic adventures from pioneer Infocom (including Zork) on vintage hardware, and discuss an open-source DSL & bytecode interpreter for writing platform-independent text adventures, developed in the days when “port the software” meant “rewrite the software.”

If you’re interested in learning more:

  • Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game. IEEE COMPUTER, April 1979.  Article by the authors of the original Zork (for PDP-10) who then founded Infocom and ported ZIL (Zork Intermediate Language) and the Z-Machine interpreter to most of the microcomputers of the day, and sold a number of commercially successful text adventures.
  • The Inform Designer’s Manual.  Inform is a high-level DSL for creating adventure games that compile to ZIL interpretable by the Z-machine, created post hoc by reverse engineering ZIL.  The manual is both a language reference and a “howto” for creating interactive fiction.  Maybe someone can create an adventure that takes place in and around the RAD Lab…
  • Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave.  Digital Humanities Quarterly, Summer 2007.  After the original Crowther source code was found, this article examined the original ADVENT as a work of interactive fiction.
  • Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort.  A scholarly but accessible survey of IF (interactive fiction) as a genre.

1980-1995: BBS: The Documentary

Imagine a virtual, free-to-use public forum on the Internet where anyone can post or reply to messages using connected PCs.  Some of these sites are free and operated by hobbyists; others are commercial, and the site managers ranged from smart hobbyists to clueless get-rich-quick schemers who figured if they put some lame pr0n pictures on the site, people might pay a monthly fee for access.

I’m referring, of course, to the Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) of the 1980s. The PCs were, of course, TRS-80s and Apple IIs and IBM clones, connected to the communication network using analog landline modems running at 300, 1200, 2400, and ultimately 56K baud.  It’s easy to forget that as late as the 1990s, local phone service was metered, long-distance was unaffordable for most people, and having hundreds of simultaneously active users on a site meant maintaining racks of hundreds of modems. All the mini-dramas of the Internet—n00bs, pr0n, warez, flame wars, stupid handles, FLOSS vs. Micro$oft, trolls, clueless inve$tor$, foreign sites circumventing local rules—happened here first.

1993-2000: Download: The True Story of the Internet

Until 1990, the Internet was for academics and researchers.  The invention of the World Wide Web (today, just the “Web”) in 1990 was a major turning point, but what brought the Web to the masses was the first point-and-click, easy-to-install graphical Web browser, NCSA Mosaic, later commercialized as Netscape Navigator.  The story of how Netscape took the IT world by storm, and what happened when Microsoft awoke to the threat, is the subject of this fast-paced documentary that reveals as much about the personalities involved—Marc Andreessen, Jim Clark, Bill Gates—as it does about the technologies that formed the IT battleground of the late 90s. Plus you get to see a mug shot of Bill Gates taken when he was arrested for dangerous driving.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1995-2000: Revolution OS

Microsoft Windows may have kicked the living daylights out of the Mac, but the war is far from over. Through interviews with Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and others, we learn about the origins of the open-source movement, the Free Software Foundation, and how Linux became the first serious server OS to challenge Microsoft Windows NT.

1980-1995: Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession

While all those people were earnestly trying to use computers to “improve productivity,” some slackers thought computers might be fun for just playing games. The first video games predate PCs by several years, and could only be played on equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. But video games took off with the invention of the microprocessor, the same technology that drove the PC revolution. As PCs became more powerful, games went hand in hand. Before long, a multibillion dollar industry that dwarfs the movie business had become the dominant form of consumer entertainment. From Space Invaders and Pac-Man to movies inspired by video games, video games have been both a cultural force and a shaper of the IT industry.

If you’re interested in learning more:

  • Supercade —a killer coffee-table book with color screenshots/photos of all the major video games since Space Invaders
  • The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent—just what the title says.  Lots of good books about this topic but this is the most comprehensive.