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[Unconventional]

A photo diary by Shiuming Lai

 

"It's about time I go to Unconventional again," I told myself. Despite the low-key organization this year, with not much announced on the Foundation Two web site, the photos and videos from the one I missed last year promised another show of familiar faces no matter what. So it was the preparation began.

Going away on a short break was a perfect excuse for spending yet more money on camera accessories, namely a spare Li-Ion battery, so I wouldn't have to carry the much bulkier charger with me. During a trip into town I took a diversion onto Tottenham Court Road as usual and headed straight for Micro Anvika, which listed the battery for at least £10 less than anywhere else. The system showed one in stock, but not at the branch where I enquired. Typical. The salesman had the good sense to call the other branch (one of four within probably a half mile radius) to check if it was really in stock, which it wasn't. Useless.

Thursday 28 August 2003
In the end I took the charger, and just as well, because the plane ticket cost over £200 due to my late booking. I was almost spitting blood. That's economy class, too, and these days that means a solitary sandwich and a drink, not one of those exquisite bonsai airline lunches.

I was due to meet Mad Butscher at Frankfurt Airport again, at 21:00. During check-in at London Heathrow, I sized up the measuring frame for hand baggage, confident that my bag would fit, but more concerned about the maximum permitted weight. I had everything stuffed into one bag, including clothes, one heavy camera and the MyAtari silver Jaguar. I could always take the camera out and carry it around my neck but as it happened I was well within the limit. Besides, I think nobody took any notice judging by some of the ridiculous items being passed off as hand baggage with no complaint from staff.

My flight was delayed by 40 minutes because some confused passengers destined for Stuttgart had made their way on board, so cabin crew had to do a head count, several times. The German gentleman sat next to me saw me taking a photo of the starboard wing of our Lufthansa Airbus A300-600, noted my camera and said he considered the same but found it too big so bought the next model down. He turned out to be an employee of Motorola. There would be plenty of Motorola power where I was heading!

Clear sky quickly turned to thick fog, at one point we hit very strong turbulence which nearly threw one stewardess off her feet as she served drinks, she was scared stiff. Finally we arrived in Frankfurt in one piece and right on time, then I wasted 15 minutes getting lost at the terminal once more. When I found the gate where I was supposed to emerge, Mad Butscher was nowhere to be seen. A quick telephone call confirmed he was at home, having only just got back from working in the south of Germany. He would be another 30 minutes, as he needed to load his equipment.

I kept myself entertained by looking at some of the beautiful new cars on display around the airport. Sadly, I would not be staying in Germany long enough for the IAA or Frankfurt Motor Show, where I could see the new generation of my own car.

[Photo: New Mazda]

There was some more confusion when Mad Butscher arrived. He asked me to wait at the departure hall, which made sense because it's a wide open space, even though I knew he meant the arrival lounge. Nevertheless, I knew he knew what he had said so I waited in the departure hall. When he arrived he still had to phone me because he was waiting outside while I was inside...

Off into darkness on Germany's unlit highways, where Mad Butscher demonstrated he could indeed drive as fast as other Germans. I would not even think about driving at those speeds without lighting, but I think they take smooth, straight and unobstructed roads for granted. His 1.7 turbodiesel Opel Corsa didn't look very cluttered inside, just a couple of bags on the rear seat. This was a stark contrast to the same car used by Dutch guys MNX, more of that later!

[Photo: Speeding]

Following tradition, we stopped at a Burger King to re-fuel our stomachs, and the Esso station next door to re-fuel the car. It was a quite relaxed break, there was no rush, it was very late anyway. Mad Butscher lifted my bag and correctly guessed I had the MyAtari silver Jaguar with me (oh, by this time it also had 1.5 litres of Captain Morgan and a box of Belgian chocolate stuffed inside...).

Friday 29 August 2003
By the time we arrived at the Schützenhaus in Lengenfeld it was 03:00, we didn't stop at Helmut Weidner's house because we didn't want to wake anyone up. It was pitch black in the field outside the hall and only one car was there, with a Floppy Doc sleeping soundly inside. We knocked at the door of the hall but there was no answer, so we went back down the hill to Helmut's house where, to our surprise, he was still awake and greeted us at his doorstep, having heard the slamming of car doors outside.

[Photo: 1040ST for real-time article]Helmut had a key to the hall so we drove back, following his lead. Even with just car headlights, I could see the marvellous exterior renovation of the hall which I first saw in photos of Unconventional 2002. As soon as we got in, Helmut conjured a table from behind the stage curtain then proceeded to set up a 1040ST in the corner by the door next to the bar, for the real-time article. Talk about priorities!

We were the first to gain access, meaning we could choose the best location for the Foundation Two table, though tradition would dictate this to be directly in front of the bar anyway, at least we could get started with building up. However, Mad Butscher was tired. I, on the other hand, was wide awake and rushing with adrenalin. I had to start doing something. A quick snack of chocolate and rum gave us the boost to set up the main Foundation Two table, and the gaming competition table in the middle of the hall. All the other equipment was still in the car but I put the silver Jaguar on the table anyway. Satisfied with this bit of work, I decided to sleep as well, waking up just hours later at 07:00. That would be the last time I slept for the rest of the entire convention.

At 07:50 there was a knock on the metal door, it was Floppy Doc. Within minutes we were building up his table, 130XE with XEP80 and 80-column amber screen monitor, and his UPS and power extensions which would feed more than half the hall later on. This did mean he couldn't leave until everyone else had unplugged first! Helmut arrived shortly after, ferrying crates and crates of beer from his house. The next person to arrive was musician R.I.K. of Foundation Two, also known for his pizza ordering skills at this event. Once things had settled a little and machines were up and running, Mad Butscher took the opportunity to show me the latest version of NonConForm, his rapid multimedia development system. While it may have looked like I wasn't showing any interest, truth is I was feeling the effect of lack of sleep, I wasn't being rude! It certainly looked more advanced than when I last saw it two years ago, and I got the chance to play some games developed with it. Steinbruch, a simple coloured blocks type game in the Tetris mould, was not complete but showed the potential of this system. I had some ideas for the game itself and was promised all of these could be done. Cross-platform development is another potential avenue for NonConForm, ideally one would be able to code a game once and port it to other systems very easily. Mad Butscher talked of wanting to do such a thing with the Jaguar, so he could code a game on the Falcon and Jaguar players could enjoy it as well.

[Photo: Atari banner]

Dutch crew MNX arrived in a cloud of cigarette smoke at midday and emptied the contents of TXG's tiny Opel Corsa onto several tables, two deep at some points. The amount of boxes and odds and ends they brought was nothing short of incredible, there were Atari Megafiles for free (what great project boxes they would make), TXG also had lots of games including new, shrink-wrapped Jaguar titles for 10 Euros a pop, I grabbed a copy of Iron Soldier, which I have yet to open and play. TWW (The White Warrior) wasted no time in getting started with his soldering iron, salvaging chips from a large box full of bare XL and XE motherboards. It really seemed like MNX had brought a complete electronics workshop and the guys were casually tinkering with many different projects as if they were at home, from SCSI device installation to Ethernet configuration across platforms from 8-bit up to the Falcon and the odd PC somewhere along the line. People even queued up for hardware diagnostics and repair.

Helmut installed an 800XL with large television set on one side of the Foundation Two table, where I played the Preppie! series, very fun games from the '80s that I'd always heard about but never played. I really enjoyed Preppie! II in spite of the ear-grating sound and music.

[Photo: Floppy Doc]

[Photo: TWW playing with a soldering iron]

[Photo: The Dutch table with lots of hardware]

Before lunch, Mad Butscher made some Unkon 2k3 signs with Atari Fuji symbols on them. We drove around the village with Floppy Doc and stuck these on local sign posts to guide visitors coming by car! Other drivers gave us strange looks. Upon returning, we met what looked like the local farmer, at first I thought he was annoyed but Mad Butscher was merely answering his curiosity as to why there were so many people around, most wearing Atari shirts. All became clear and the man remembered previous years' events, and thought we were computer experts so called his son out to talk to us and ask us questions, in the embarrassing way only fathers do.

Back at the party, plenty of drinks were in the house including the usual unusual local variation on the cola theme, and R.I.K. had started his day with a bottle of beer, but there was no food. Bulk pizza ordering was not due for several hours, when more visitors had arrived. As it was Friday, many people were still at work while others were coming from a long way and so wouldn't arrive until the evening. I joined Floppy Doc and Mad Butscher to go to a local supermarket. They were looking for one in particular, passing by a few other supermarkets on the way. I don't think they found the one they were looking for, I couldn't tell. Every one looked the same to me, cheap and cheerful was the order of the day. We drove all that way and by the looks of it the three of us only stocked up on junk food, mainly. I had some Schinkensalat, snack pepperoni, more chocolate for my rum and nice German bread like slabs of stone. Mad Butscher also bought some paper and pens for the gaming competitions, what expensive "cheap" pens they were at 35 cents each...

[Photo: The fields outside]

Much of the day was quieter than I expected then as the evening approached, so did many more visitors. Our friends from the Czech Republic, Bohdan Milar and his girlfriend, and Jan Krupka from Jay Soft. They had travelled by train this time, Zdenek Burian was to arrive slightly later due to work. TWH (Thomas Havemeister) of Foundation Two appeared from nowhere and was chatting to the MNX guys and Floppy Doc on their side of the hall and I recognized him from photos in some MyAtari articles so introduced myself.

Gaming high score challenge
On the table in the middle of the room were several machines set up for people to play as many times as they liked, with a sheet of paper beside each machine for recording the highest scores. I liked the show of trust here and everyone was a good sport. The MyAtari silver Jaguar GTI (a cool thing was later we had a visitor who actually works at Volkswagen HQ in Wolfsburg) was used for Club Drive, a Jaguar game known for being trashy more than anything, so much so that the enjoyment of playing it is purely having a joke at the expense of the game. It was utterly incomprehensible to me. We played in freestyle mode and I found the whole experience unlike anything else I've played, the graphics looked like they were made with STOS 3D and the music and sound effects were so oddball I couldn't help but be incredibly amused by it. I think many players of Air Cars at JagFest UK had similar sentiments.

A 2600 hosted Space Invaders, lots of people played but nobody listened to my advice about the cheat which allows firing two shots rather than one between hits! It wouldn't be so much cheating as everyone would have the same feature, more to do with removing the frustration of the slow rate of fire for trigger-happy freaks like myself. It was the 2600 which brought my attention to the use of the "thickened" Atari logo (with the closed "R" - refer to Atari Logo Evolution in issue 32) on the product itself. Then I saw it on a 7800 Proline joystick, and XE computer badges. Very interesting.

Qix, one of R.I.K.'s favourite games, was played on an XE computer with matching grey CX40 joystick from an XE Game System. Last of all there was an ST with funky coloured Competition Pro joystick, running Reservoir Gods' SuperFly. This game was almost single-handedly responsible for my total lack of sleep during Unconventional. Like many things it seemed more complex than it was. I watched a few people play it but when I came to have a go, I pressed the fire button too rapidly (thinking I was playing Joust) and quickly got tired, wondering how anyone could play this for a long time. Mad Butscher pointed out the error of my technique so I gave it another try - that was it, I had it! I couldn't tear myself away from the game until I had surpassed the highest score thus far, setting a new high of 4,880. Obsession then set in and I tried and tried to beat this during every spare moment I had, the closest I got was within just 100 points and I was pulling my hair out! I also found several shots of rum to help relax and get the rhythm. Then Jan Krupka bounced along smiling and laughing and effortlessly equalled my score! My determination to beat it was by now very intense, though I could see the funny side.

Gaming champion Mr XY of Foundation Two made a late appearance, this time with a toddler and baby in tow, both his creations. I guess fatherhood won't leave him much time for game playing now! Charlie Chaplin of SWAT also arrived around this time, with his XL system.

[Photo: Shiny Competition Pro joystick]

[Photo: TXG floating in a sea of hardware]

[Photo: MNX busy]

[Photo: Mr XY with his new baby]

[Photo: 16/32 Systems]

[Photo: Wide angle view of hall]

[Photo: MNX crew]

Pizza time
Ah, the moment we've all been waiting for: party food. I remember at Unconventional 2001 the pizza had a texture like rubber, but the flavour was not bad, quite distinctive. R.I.K. informed us this year we would use a different pizza service, and made sure nobody ordered a number 52 without knowing what Schnecken were (how hard it must be to resist playing a joke on someone). Thanks to his previous lesson in gastronomic German, I made an intelligent guess about Parmaschinken and partnered it with a side order of bruschetta. Meanwhile, Nick Harlow of 16/32 Systems arrived. Mad Butscher yelled for everyone to help unload his car and Helmut delivered the low wooden benches for Nick to sprawl out his wares. We emptied the car in less than five minutes, contrary to the marathon unloading session I was expecting judging by Mad Butscher's account of the last time.

Amid the flurry of activity, Sacha Hofer from Switzerland arrived with two friends, Sacha had his personal VGA projector and the three of them set up a table in one corner by the stage. All of them brought notebook PCs and were doing strange things. It's good that Sacha brought friends who would otherwise not have come to this event, I think others can do the same - the more the merrier. For example, when I go to Cheshunt Computer Club I always invite non-Atari friends along, even if only to help carry stuff!

Pizza arrived and we hastily paid before tucking in. Hmm, last time we had rubber pizza, this time it was like plywood! Of course, that can be of practical use in some situations but I think I made a bad choice of topping as well. I like Parma ham and have it regularly at home so know what to expect, but I think my pizza here had more salt in it than the Dead Sea. I couldn't finish it in one go and had a bruschetta break, which I shared with Nick since he arrived too late to make his own pizza order. Obviously that wasn't enough to feed even a hamster so I guided Nick across cobbled streets to the local petrol station, the route firmly embedded in my mind now, to buy snack sausages and other stuff.

As midnight drew closer, some people started making plans on sleeping. I expected most people would have sleeping bags or mattresses and just sleep in the hall, but some chose to sleep in their cars, probably to get some peace and quiet. We had the hall to ourselves and there would be all-night gaming for sure. A group of people helped TWH set up a tent at the far end of the field, and the Swiss would be driving back to a hotel some 20 km away.

[Photo: TWH's tent]

[Photo: MNX crew with the Czechs and Nick Harlow]

[Photo: The bar]

There were lights in the ceiling of the hall but only the lights on the wall were switched on during the night. It lacked the harshness of the ceiling lights I remember from 2001 but made taking pictures very difficult. I didn't use flash for most of them and the resulting dark but warm pictures here are actually quite close to what it was like.

 

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #4, September 2003

 
Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine