ASCII by Jason Scott

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Noticing Burnt Computers —

In the television series Burn Notice, which I enjoy very much, the premiere episode for the second season of the show featured a computer room. This computer room inevitably required a later break-in, and in a sign of the series’ increased budget, the explosion/destruction of the computer room.

The character and friend break into the computer room later, wire into the machine to absorb the information, and begin to pull down all the nasty hidden information within its confines.

Sadly, everything goes utterly pants and the solution employed by the main character is to blow up the machine and then ransom for the stolen information within it. There are many pretty explosions and the bad guy shows up to a destroyed computer room.

I had initially thought these machines were VAXes of some variation, but they’re possibly based on HP machines. I can’t easily compare the various available models and after a point the return on time investment is scant. I therefore think they’re probably either old HPs or were modeled out of foam from photos of old HPs and/or VAXes.

I’m sure you’re biting your nails wondering what the computer historian thinks about the television/Hollywood portrayals of computing, the inevitable shortcuts taken, or the inaccuracies paraded around. The fact is, it’s very hard for me to get worked up about it, and I don’t see it as either a betrayal of the truth or a disservice to the audience.

There is a lot of verbiage related to how computers are portrayed through dramatic arts, but the fact is the computers, just like the locations and props and actors, are merely gears in a machine designed to entertain. They’e not meant to be overly accurate and if they are meant to be accurate that’s usually some sort of meta-relevant marketing feature, like having the main character be computer generated or filming a period piece within the confines of an actual city block where something happened.

The fact that one might know enough about computers to question the shortcuts or designs made in the background or as part of the plot of a movie is your own side of a multi-faceted diamond of conceits built into the production. You might not notice that that bird noise is in the wrong region of the country or that the cars turn at street corners 20 miles apart, or that a building in the back of a period piece has a cornice totally out of whack with when the movie supposedly takes place. It’s all different for different people.

When I see this shot, for example, I know that the use of explosives (pyrotechnics, really) sets into motion a sizable amount of rules and procedures to happen. The room is almost definitely a set, and by set I mean in the middle of a very large, very ventilated massive room, with many dozens of feet between it and walls. I know that they had someone saw/cut the faceplate of the computer on the left to make that impressive exploded-by-the-ammo look. We never ever ever see a ceiling, because there isn’t one.

If I start to go nuts, I can ask questions like “What status is the guy with the clipboard writing down when he looks at the computers through the window?” “How do they open the front of the machines to work those tape drives or panel when they’re flush against glass?” Why did they need to wire into coaxial cable to hook a laptop up to a machine to download its data through the USB port?” “Where’s the tapes for the 4 tape drives?” “How did an explosion cause all four tape drives to open at once, when they lock into place?”

Along that line, if you really care, the items in the “office” are sparkling new, obviously purchased at a local office supply shop. The walls are spotless, as they were just constructed and painted. The walls are also devoid of any artwork, posters or markings, and that wouldn’t be overly critical to the portrayal of the room as a computer room.

Does this matter? Does any of it matter? Hence the lack of Jason-like concern for accuracy. The grand sum of scenes for this shot doesn’t go over 3 minutes. It’s a good three minutes. Later a boat explodes. I’m happy.

I want to think they bought this old computer collection from somewhere, that it’s an actual discarded computer that no longer serves its function and not just a model. I could be wrong. Like I said, this was the first episode of a second season for an unexpectedly hit show, and it contains not one but three different scenes in which Major Shit Blows Up, so obviously the budget has increased substantially and they probably have a team assigned to “things we should acquire to blow up”.

If so, some old machines had a pretty attention-grabbing send-off.

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  1. Kizzle says:

    Awesome to see that someone else watches this show too. Any chance you watch the new Battlestar Galactica? I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. From watching and listening to the commentary it seems to defy the normal television model at every turn… and is completely bad ass.

  2. Jim Leonard says:

    I, too, love Burn Notice. One of the only decent shows on TV.

    BTW the “servers” looked like old NEC racks, mostly empty (putting real computers in there would have cost too much to blow up). Not that it matters, but they were not flush against the glass. They were very close, yes, but you could walk in front of them if you had to.

    It sounds like you’re trying to come to terms with how much that aspect bugged you while you were trying to enjoy the show 🙂 I do the same thing, but in general it took me a very very long time to come to grips with computers portrayed badly in movies. I wrote an essay about it in 1997 that summed up my feelings here:

    The only computer movie I saw that even tried to give a crap was War Games; that really is a CP/M system, that really is an 8-inch floppy, that is a real terminal and a real acoustic coupling modem — but best of all, he got the passwords from the secretary’s desk and we know all too well THAT was the most realistic part. The 2nd half about the giant war computer I’ve never seen because I usually turn the movie off at that point.

    However, July 24th is the 25th anniversary of War Games and it is playing in several theaters across the country that night. We’re seeing it here, and I can then finally say I’ve seen War Games.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    I don’t watch Battlestar Galactica, although I’ve heard it’s good. I’ll probably see it in my future sometime.

    And no, it didn’t bug me at all! I just happened to see it go by and thought it was cute to mention and to make clear my thoughts on dramatic portrayal of computers.

  4. Mirka says:

    “utterly pants” is a fabulous phrase. i think i’m going to have to start using that.

  5. Chris says:

    One problem that I’ve always had concerning the movie ‘War Games’ is that we never see David logging into a BBS, though it is assumed that he must have been doing exactly that offscreen (what hacker kid would have owned a computer and a modem in the early 80s and NOT been on BBSs??). Being a BBS kid myself back in the early 80’s, that was the only detail about David’s character that should have been included, but wasn’t.

    Otherwise, an excellent 80’s hacker/gamer period piece, and still in the list of my top-ten favorite movies of all time.

  6. Shell says:

    Burn Notice looks like an amazingly cool show. Almost makes me want to switch to satelite tv just so I can get the USA channel.
    Either that or I’m going to have to shell out $50 or so to buy the first season on dvd. Sometimes it sucks living north of the border….

  7. Kizzle says:

    I think it’s US only but you can watch every episode of Burn Notice here. Scroll down for full episode list.

    Hint: mouse over the video player for full-screen and high-def options.

  8. Shell says:

    Thanks Kizzle, but you’re right. Only available to American audiences at this time. Guess I’ll just have to be patient…..or less miserly……