Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 19, 2016

In the Bat Cave: A Rio de Janeiro Memory

Watching the Olympics, I’ve been struck by how many planeloads and shiploads of stuff have been sent to Rio de Janeiro. The teams, sponsors, media, tour operators and security forces have shipped mountains of food, shoes, canoes, kayaks, rowing shells, barbells, vaulting poles, horses (!), cameras, dollies, cranes and uncountable other gear.

How many computers must these enterprises have brought to the fray? Thousands.

I was once part of a team that sent a bunch of computers to Rio. What became of them and what ensued is a tale that has never been told.

I went to Rio in 1990 as part of a large production team for my company’s annual sales recognition event. In addition to designing and producing all the presentations, product introductions, dinners and entertainment, shooting photographs and video and producing a daily conference newspaper, we managed all the behind-the-scenes work of maintaining lists of attendees, award recipients, travel logistics and scheduling.

By 1990, computers had only recently become integral production tools. We relied on spreadsheets and word processing to produce lists, badges, and a constantly changing variety of schedules for the meetings, rehearsals, departures and arrivals, transportation details and so forth.

We shipped a big bunch of PCs to Rio in advance. They were primitive, with i386 processors and crude displays. Still, we needed them, and our logistics guys said they arrived safely at the airport and had entered Brazilian customs.

At that time, Brazil was suffering a severe economic crisis accompanied by astronomical inflation. (Not that different from today, in fact.) One of the steps the country took was to impose a 100% tariff on the importation of technology: Ship a $1,000 computer to Rio? That will cost $1,000, please, preferably U.S. currency.

In our case, someone didn’t get paid, or perhaps someone who had access to that batch of 20 or more new computers had a good way of realizing a profit on them.

Those PCs never emerged from the mysterious bureaucracy, ever. Not to this day. Officially, those computers are still “in Customs.”

We had no computers to run the back office for the show. It was a big problem.

My remarkably resourceful boss, G., and his equally resourceful “ground operator,” M., got to work. G. found me the first night after our arrival and told me to be ready to go with them the next morning to help them do some computer work, and to bring all my software.

Computer technology was so iffy that we actually traveled with full backups not only of our data, but the software, too. Everything resided on 5-1/4 floppy disks (click there if you don’t know what one was; you’ll laugh). I was a writer and media producer, but I also passed as someone knowledgeable about computers, and had a full set of everything we’d use for the show: a big stack of floppy disks.

On a sunny March morning, G., M. and I were driven into residential Rio de Janeiro and taken to a quiet, shady street lined with Colonial era mansions behind stone walls. All I could get out of G. and M. was that we were going to a place that “had some computers,” and we’d spend the entire day working through the nuts-and-bolts of producing schedules, badges, award lists, etc. etc. (that daily conference newspaper was still produced by old-fashioned, analog paste-up and photocopying).

I could think of nothing except the almost certain failure we were about to experience. What sort of computers were these? Would they run our software? What would happen, for example, if the operating systems were written in Portuguese? I knew BASIC, the language that booted an application into the operating system, but did it work in Brazil? I had no clue, and I didn’t relish being the thin line of defense between existence and chaos. I wasn’t THAT adept at how the damned things worked.

M. rang the buzzer and we went through a big iron gate up to a tall, pillared entry in the aging white mansion, decades past its prime, where a young man whose name I’ve forgotten opened the door and let us in. I learned we were in a private computer school where the guy taught people to use computers.

He took us upstairs to a room full of tables and desks, on which rested an assortment of maybe 20 computers of all types and makes, some new, most already obsolete to one degree or another. I looked at G. and M., who were looking at me. Showtime.

I picked a computer of a recognizable brand and started it. I got the Command Prompt:

Command prompt

I inserted a floppy into the drive, typed A: and hit ENTER. The computer recognized that, and I had a screen like the one above, with the letter A instead of C.

I prayed I didn’t need to know the Portuguese equivalent of “run.” (No, I couldn’t Google it or look it up online because there was no such thing. Nor did cell phones exist, so I couldn’t freaking CALL anyone.)

I typed something like RUN>PROGRAM.EXE and hit ENTER.

The disk drive whirred and, eureka!, our program came alive on the screen in a glorious 640 x 480 pixels. We were in business. I repeated the process on two other machines, and G., M. and I spent the next 12 hours updating lists, creating badges, schedules, etc. and printing them out in multiple copies. Hooray.

It seems so distant, that world in which even the most fundamental computer technology was not ubiquitous, and was rare in Brazil, one of the world’s most populous countries. The phone in your pocket has more processing power than all the computers in that long-ago room in Rio de Janeiro, and will shoot video and stream it worldwide. I don’t even have a blurry old 35mm slide image of that scene to show you; I left my (film) camera at the hotel, because I was working. You didn’t take your camera to work back then.

Late in the day, the young man who ran the place asked if we were interested in seeing his impressive new secret technology. We said yes, to be polite, and he said, “I’ll take you to the Bat Cave.”

What now?

He led us downstairs, then down another flight of stairs into the basement of the place and stopped outside a door. He gave us a conspiratorial grin. What was in there? He unlocked the door, swung it open and gestured towards a table on which sat a shiny new computer with a brilliant color display: it was an i486 computer, only recently introduced to the world. He said it was probably the only one in Brazil.

How did he get it? Think about our shipment of PCs sitting “in customs.”

Something like that.

© Brad Nixon 2016

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Responses

  1. That’s quite a trip down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person


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