Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"The only winning move is not to play."

When I was growing up, there were two reasons why computers were so darn cool: Thermonuclear War and Lisa. As a result, I spent countless hours in front of my Commodore 64 trying to hack my way into government mainframes. First, I was going to challenge a supercomputer to a game of "tic-tac-toe" and then I was going to use its processing power to generate a computer-simulated supermodel.

Right now, you are probably thinking one of two things: Either this guy has lost his marbles or it's time to hit up Netflicks and rent WarGames and Weird Science. In the early 1980s, Hollywood was making millions while riding the wave created by the new home-computing industry. So today, I thought we'd take a short trip through Silicon Valley's heyday on the Silver Screen.

WarGames (1983)

Vintage Handset ModemWargames starred Matthew Broderick as a high school student who made up for his poor grades by breaking into the school's computer system and making the "appropriate" adjustments. When not fixing his grades, he was using his modem to seek out bulletin board systems (BBS) to play online games. The BBS was the precursor to the World Wide Web where a phone line called directly into another computer. Once logged in, you could upload and download files, play games, and check out the messaging system.

Anyway, Matthew finds a computer that he cannot access. After doing some investigating, he discovers a backdoor into the system and challenges the computer to a game of “thermonuclear war”. Matthew thinks that he is just playing another video game, but what he doesn’t know is that he has logged into NORAD's nuclear missile system.

War GamesUsing backdoors, WarGames fed into fears people had about the security of computer systems. A backdoor is a programming flaw that allows a user to gain remote access to a host computer. Wargames also provided a platform for the new breed of explorer known as the hacker. Anyway, I am not going to spoil the ending, but it is well worth the rental!

Weird Science (1985)

LisaWiley and Gary were two high school nerds that had zero luck with the ladies. So one day, they decide to use their desktop computer to hack into the Pentagon's mainframe and make a graphic rendering of the perfect woman. Of course, as they were hacking into the computer a freak electrical storm hits the power lines and the rendering comes to life in the form of Lisa, played by Kelly LeBrock. Yada yada yada - Hilarity ensues. If you haven't seen Weird Science, you need to stop reading this and rent it immediately.

Lisa Screen ShotVintage computer junkies will take note of two other tidbits. First, Lisa was actually named after Apple Computer's LISA, or Local Integrated Software Architecture. The LISA made use of one of the earliest graphical user interfaces, or GUI. A graphical user interface provided the user with icons and pointers to interact rather than a completely text based operating system. The LISA was also one of the first computers to offer virtual memory in which the hard drive could be allocated for additional RAM.

MTX512 Fully LoadedAstute viewers will notice that Wiley's computer is a Memotech MTX512 with the additional FDX peripheral. At the time, the MT512 was capable of pretty advanced visuals with its high-resolution 16-color graphic display. The FDX also provided a floppy and hard drive, which cost a small fortune when it was released. Is the MTX512 still strong enough to break into a government supercomputer? Debatable. Can it still create super models? Well, I sure hope so!

WarGames and Weird Science - Still providing hope after all these years.