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A photo diary by Shiuming Lai

 

Saturday 29 November 2003
My phone rang. "I'm signing up for probation," said Tyrant, just 10 minutes before I was due to meet him at Ealing Broadway, at 11:00. Not really understanding what he meant, I acknowledged this strange statement but it wouldn't leave my head. As my bus made its way, I realized he meant, "I'm standing outside the station" - losing my hearing in my old age, methinks!

Indeed, on this cold and wet morning, standing at the entrance to Ealing Broadway Station was a grizzly Tyrant carrying a sleeping bag, a sports bag full of Jaguar rotary controllers and a mysterious black case clenched with white knuckles, it later transpired to contain his precious Jaguar Alpine board.

We hopped on a bus to Peter West's house, where he was backing up his Falcon's hard disk to DDS-2 tape before carting his system up to Birmingham with us in his estate car. Our destination was the Micro Mart computer fair, yes, one of those places that is like a huge Sunday market, not a glamorous exhibition with major manufacturers having a presence. Specifically, we were to be manning the Atari section of the retro computing feature area. Strictly speaking it wasn't a JagFest like the one earlier this year in Rochester, but more of a historical attraction among the modern PC-oriented event. However, many familiar faces from the first UK JagFest would be there, not to mention some of the MyAtari team.

The journey north started with very heavy rain along the A40. Peter was driving and I sat in front, which was a bit silly considering my incredibly poor navigation skills. Tyrant was going to spend the Saturday night at Stone's new pad in Malvern (famed for its mineral water), and had brought a microscopic-detailed set of directions printed off a web site.

I dug out my borrowed notebook PC to show Tyrant the last-minute slideshow presentation I received from Lars of Starcat Developments, showing his latest Jaguar game, Eerievale. A preview of the game and its soundtrack were demonstrated just a week earlier at the Euro JagFest in Germany, it would be great to show everyone over here the exclusive screens and game information. Unfortunately we weren't able to obtain permission to have the soundtrack in its current state, so we had to make do with Michael Jackson's Thriller!

All the driving and talking made us crave some lunch. Our first stop, at a service station situated next to a BMW showroom, provided the opportunity to get a snack, stretch our legs and take a look at the controversial new 5 Series. I have to say, it looks better in the flesh.

There wasn't any proper food at the service station so we continued our journey, eyes peeled for a pub. We missed loads because of Peter's fast driving and partly due to talking too much to pay attention. Finally we shouted, "Pub!" soon enough for Peter to stop safely. It was the Duke of Marlborough Country Inn on the A44. What a cosy and pleasant little country pub this was. Following much deliberation over the menu, we all settled for the same thing: duck salad sandwich. Being where we were, and from the time it took to be served, it wouldn't have surprised me if the landlord had to pick up his shotgun and don his wellies to go out and catch the duck first. The sandwiches got thumbs-up from all three of us, even if there wasn't a lot of duck for the money.

By the time we finished lunch it was already getting close to mid-afternoon, though we didn't want to arrive in Birmingham too early (and neither did most of the PC exhibitors, as we later found) because nobody else would be there, perhaps not even to let us in. The way to Malvern was a rather uneventful affair through the beautiful Cotswolds, save for a very near head-on and high-speed collision, averted only by Peter's Formula 1 driving reflexes.

Finding Malvern's railway station was no problem. When Stone turned up, Peter and I left Tyrant to catch a train with Stone. Darkness was rapidly looming so we wasted no time getting to Birmingham. I took three of Tyrant's rotary controllers for the Tempest 2000 competition, because we didn't know what time he'd get to Birmingham by train on a Sunday.

Upon arrival at the Birmingham NEC at 17:00, we had a tough time trying to locate Hall 17 and ended up driving back out of the gargantuan complex and in again. Once inside, the first thing we saw was a van of a company providing the arcade cabinets for the retro section. A word of warning: the lighting in that place was horrible! Consequently, the white balance of the photos here is all over the place - this is partly intentional to show it as it was and partly because some things looked plain ugly in that light. Put another way: please excuse my lousy photography!

[Photo: Arcade cabinet van]

Behind the long partition in the loading area was the exhibition area. Shaun Bebbington of Micro Mart magazine was already there, setting up the Commodore section with Allan Bairstow of Commodore Scene magazine, together with a small group of helpers. The Sinclair/SAM corner was also taking shape. Overall it was easy to spot the retro area as it was marked out by a large overhead banner suspended from the roof, and a nice orange felt covering on the floor, something shared by the other main feature area, the Micro Mart magazine stand.

I consider myself reasonably aware of alternative retro computers but can honestly say I had no idea the SAM Coupé ever made it to market.

[Photo: Retro area setting up]

[Photo: Sinclair/SAM area]

[Photo: Peter West and his Falcon]

Peter set up his Falcon in almost no time at all and the Atari section was looking quite bare, especially compared to the incredible amount of machines, tools and other bits the Commodore section had. I wondered how they'd manage to cram it all into the available space (later it was shown that they couldn't!). I didn't really have anything with me to show, just my six-switch 2600 which still needed its cartridge slot re-aligned. This turned out to be far easier than I thought, so I was left twiddling my thumbs wondering what to do next, as the rest of the hall was empty, and Nick Harlow of 16/32 Systems hadn't arrived yet.

Meanwhile, there was a chap loitering around the Atari section with a number of interesting items, such as a "Darth Vader" 2600 with home-brew composite video output, and a "pirate" version of the VCS that had many games built-in. It looked almost identical to Atari's classic 2600 except for the omission of Atari logos, and the name of the system was slightly changed. I found out the chap in question was Ian Gledhill, co-editor of Retro Review, an A5 printed magazine covering all retro platforms (and henceforth pestered him about the much delayed issue 5). From reading it, I always thought Ian was mainly an Amiga man, but he had loads of Atari stuff, including some of the new generation home-brew games released in collaboration with AtariAge. The quality of these games and their presentation is very professional indeed. Marble Craze was one that I always wanted to play, but we were having technical problems. My 2600 only had RF output, and nobody (yet) had a television set, we had to use Ian's modified 2600 with his Philips RGB monitor, but it wasn't playing ball.

Other members of the MyAtari team would be coming the next day. Matthew Preston was still at home and getting ready, transferring nearly all of his Atari XL/XE software onto an old laptop. It was pretty funny, he had a fear of not managing to finish this task because he kept getting side-tracked by playing all those great old Atari games! By this time Peter was going through various software he could demonstrate on his Falcon, mainly some CD-ROMs of old and well-known demos, but nothing that really stretched the power of the machine. I hadn't given much thought to it, not having brought anything significant to show myself, but then I had an idea and asked Matthew to download New Beat's ACE Tracker and bring it with him on Sunday. Cool idea, because he was also bringing a secret weapon to make sure the Atari section would be heard as well as seen: his guitar practice amplifier! Oh yes...

[Photo: Commodore Scene kiosk]

Commodore Scene had this cool kiosk style stand complete with Commodore branded monitor. From left to right: Shaun Bebbington (Micro Mart), Ian Gledhill (Retro Review) and Allan Bairstow (Commodore Scene). Come on, lads, you've got an exhibition to prepare and you're standing around playing games?!


Nick Harlow finally arrived at 20:30, with Richard Stevens who'd brought his Milan 060 for demonstrating the elusive Papyrus X, itself only having arrived in the last 24 hours. Although Nick didn't have the cool Jaguar kiosk from the previous JagFest to match the Commodore guys, he did have four large Sony Profeel CRT video monitors for the Jaguar competitions - we quickly stacked them up into an impressive looking video wall, which later had to be cut down to two screens due to insufficient power outlets! Finally the Atari section was looking healthier. We all lent a hand to unload the last bits from Nick's van as it was getting late and we were all rather hungry. Even at this late time, there were no more than five other exhibitors present and setting up! Either we were there on the wrong day, or those other guys were cutting it very fine.

I had hoped to find a nice curry house but none of us really knew the area (local lad Gary Taylor was not to arrive until Sunday). Peter led the convoy of starving retro computing people to our hotel, from where we'd decide what to do next. We'd all been booked at a Premier Lodge hotel many, many miles from the Birmingham NEC. I noticed there were Premier Lodge hotels on the NEC site itself, but our one was a much nicer country pub affair, rather than the concrete monoliths back at the NEC. In the end we stayed for dinner at the hotel, because it had a very warm and busy atmosphere. Everyone with a room booked got a complimentary shot of whiskey and by the end of the evening we were all well and truly fed. Those crispy mushroom thingies were simply delicious.

Sunday 30 November 2003
While everyone else went to bed, the night had just begun for me. Months earlier, I took delivery of Matthew Preston's Jaguar to do a paint job on it. Unfortunately I got bogged down with other things and only had the idea to show it at JagFest Micro within a couple of weeks of the event. It would have gone exactly to plan but a last-minute glitch required me to re-work the final coat. This meant I was up into the small hours in my hotel room with a 1,600 W paint stripper, desperately trying to heat up (without getting too close otherwise it would start melting) and accelerate the hardening of the last coat of paint! If only I had a way to suspend the Jaguar above the heater in the room, because that was quite intense, then I could have enjoyed a good night's sleep.

Nick and Richard left for the NEC very early, as Nick was understandably paranoid about leaving all his stock unattended while the other exhibitors and unknown people started to populate the hall. Peter and I arrived shortly before opening time, skipping breakfast at the hotel.

[Photo: 16/32 Systems]

[Photo: 16/32's Jaguar stuff]

Matthew Preston arrived early, he'd even got his dad to come along, and friend Malcolm, who worked at Texas Instruments back in the '70s, in the pioneering days of home computing. He brought a 1200XL and mint condtion 800XL, all in their packaging, and his XE Game System with modified Nintendo lightgun. During the course of the day, Matthew re-arranged his stuff so many times I gave up trying to get a definitive photograph of it!

I managed to get Matthew's Jaguar into a reasonable state for display, together with MyAtari's silver Jaguar. The idea was to make Matthew's one the inverse, so it would have a blue body, white LED (a very bright one, it turned out) and the Jaguar logo painted in silver. Unfortunately all attempts to paint silver onto the much darker blue were not successful as the blue showed through, so I left it off for the "stealth" look. Yes, everybody, this is a special developers' de-bugging Jaguar! What you can't see in the photo below (and that horrible, horrible NEC lighting) is that the pearlescent blue paint shows funky hints of purple when viewed from certain angles!

Once settled into the pace of things, I fired up my PC notebook and started showing Starcat's Eerievale presentation. Some visitors were surprised that development is still going on for the Jaguar, can you imagine what they'd make of the games still coming out for the 2600?!

[Photo: Guitar amplifier]

[Photo: Blue Jaguar]

Mark Branson of Cheshunt Computer Club also arrived early, with his CT60 super-Falcon tower. The Atari section was already full to bursting and he had to take residence on the next table, in the Texas Instruments corner, which had space to spare.

Mark explained some of the problems he'd had with the temperature monitoring software reporting strange values, but was very pleased now with the speed at which he can view MyAtari pages in CAB. There was a large diameter exhaust fan in the rear of the case but Mark didn't have an adapter to connect it to any of the power supply standard drive power plugs. The exhibition hall electricians had left off-cuts of bare copper wire all over the floor and that gave me an idea. I trimmed a couple of short lengths to insert between the fan's plug and a floppy drive power plug. It didn't work because I had thoughtlessly connected the red wire on the fan (+ve) to the same colour on the floppy drive plug, where red is only 5 V not the 12 V the fan requires (that'll be the yellow wire!). Well at least now we know!

All day long, people were asking Mark about his CT60 Falcon, mainly for all the wrong reasons! In particular, one gentleman was highly impressed by the case and wanted one to build a PC server, all talk of a 68060 powered Atari inside went into one ear and came out of the other. Eventually tired of this, Mark slapped a notice on the side of the tower so people would be left in no doubt as to what was inside! It reminded me of a conversation I had with Thomas Göttsch of Milan Computer years ago, about the then-radical appearance of the Milan II case. "If you make it look like a PC, people think it's a PC", logically enough. Right from the beginning, I've been on Mark's case (no pun intended) to remember to pay attention to the external appearance. At the moment, the priority is, quite rightly, to get the internals all working like clockwork.

[Photo: Mark Branson's CT60 tower]

[Photo: This is not a PC!]

 

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #4, December 2003

 
Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine