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At The Gathering '98

The Vikingship, Hamar is shaped like an overturned longboat, a wide curved midriff tapering to each end, writ large in concrete, built for speed skating in the 1994 Winter Olympics.

The darkened hall is a sea of a thousand monitors, rows of makeshift tables stacked with screens, speakers and PCs. The screens glow blue, white, black and green, a forest of flickering square will-o'-the-wisps. Masked against the phosphor are the silhoue ttes of their owners.

Easter Weekend brings a different kind of sport to the basin of Hamar's great hall. It is Norway's largest demo party.


Emerging with the programmable home computers of the mid 1980s grew the fervent composition of 'Demos' - animated sequences designed to flaunt the coding prowess of their creators, and the competitions to decide the best.

Demos are not, as a rule, user-interactive. In fact, you would mistake them for a pre-rendered sequence, like those created for films, television and the 'intermissions' in computer games. This would be a grave affront to the demo coder; though artwork is important, the crux of the matter is in generating each frame of the animation, each effect, using elegant and fast code. The Amiga is the classic machine of the demo 'scene', the inexpensive Commodore sequel to the C64 that opened up full-colour graphical programming to an eager audience of geeks worldwide. It seems Scandinavians have a particular affinity, both for demo co ding and the Amiga. Although there's not been a hardware release for many years the Amiga competitions are some of the hardest fought and most technically impressive.

Of course there are now PC categories, not to forget Music, Java and HTML. The emphasis is on resource-tight code; for example within a tiny 4K, 64K or 640K of memory. The incredible feats accomplished make laughable Microsoft's desire to see 64mb in ever y new PC. Even for the latest in 3D cards, the 3Dfx Voodoo II, the emphasis is firmly on extracting every drop of performance from the metal.

The Gathering passes judgement on no less than 21 categories of demonstration, even including a Commodore 64 and a PC text mode category. Submissions are made by 'crews' with names like Sublogic, INF, Komplex, Black Lotus and Sorrox. Scandinavian crews do minate, particularly the Finns, but competitors come from around the world. Judgement is passed by an respected panel in combination with votes from the floor. The winners take home cash prizes bestowed by the corporate sponsors and, more importantly, the prestige of the hacking elite.


Unfortunately, wandering through the rows of glowing screens gives little clue to the coding talent assembled. Most of the generally young audience are playing games, swapping files or - hot for this year - installing Windows 98 (again).

There is a fascination in lingering walks through the aisles, stealing a glance into the private desktop worlds, transplanted from their hidden bedrooms into public scrutiny. Happily most of the attendees appear untroubled by this digital public exposure - they continue to swap naughty files, talk on IRC and play with their configuration - just like at home.

Which raises the question, what are they doing here? Our desktop survey shows that games are the number one application, with Quake, Grand Theft Auto and Starcraft the most popular - gradually joined by the viral spread of the inexplicable slow-moving cru de graphics of 'Stunt Cross Racer'. As Steffen, veteran of five years' Gatherings laments 'Too many game-lamers this year'. He feels the real 'scene' is dying out, replaced by a new breed of younger PC users who are more interested in exchanging techno MP 3's than gouraud shading in 4k RAM.

Certainly music-player consoles are common on every screen, grinding out ceaseless compressed audio through some giant speaker-stacks. Most individual tunes are standard pop fare, RUN DMC, Will Smith, Renegade Master and squiggly Techno. The choir of PC s peakers, stereos and cooling fans conspires into a dull bassline rumbling punctuated by bursts of melody as the wind of volume shifting whim moves through the crowd. This makes sleeping on the concrete floor, stands and seats a little hard, even with the free earplugs.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)is probably next up after games, music and file-trading. This throws another curious light on the event; people have travelled many miles for computer-mediated conversation. Still, while the network lasts, IRC is good news for rea lity shy folk.

Most of our audience does look awkwardly teenage, but they are well dressed, with no savage mullet hairstyles, and not entirely male. Perhaps over ten percent are girls, quite at home with their boyfriends or groups of friends. Apparently this is unusual, the first year with much of a female presence, remarkable as it is also the first year that girls have been charged admission, albeit at half the price of NK 300 (around 30 UK pounds).


The Gathering is sold-out months in advance but foreign visitors are fortunately allowed to pay on the door. Here I meet Arne, a member of the Crusaders demo crew and co-founder of the Gathering. He fills me in on the history of the event, which launched properly in 1992 for a couple of hundred hackers and settled in the Vikingship in 1996. Since then its size has remained constant at capacity of 4,000 folk and their electronic friends.

Arne works with high-end, surround-sound audio. His Crusader fellows may be game developers or IT consultants. Their disposable income goes on electronics and lasers; they have their $50,000 water-cooled white laser ready to go, as seen at the Prodigy's F at of the Land launch gig in Oslo last summer. The albumn arrived with the laser crew the day before the gig - and its release date - in MPEG format over the Internet. The record company weren't too pleased, but it made for a better show.

I am assured that there's no alcohol, drugs or theft at The Gathering, and that's not because of the two web cams looking down from the eaves. Nobody is watching right now, because the Internet links are pretty much dead. In fact, the weekend seems plague d by network problems - which is hardly surprising, as this is the largest temporary network in the world.


Each of the 100 tables has 45 twisted pair ethernet ports, grouped in subnets on mini-hubs, which in turn are hooked to hubs at the end of each row. Here the jump is made to light speed - or at least, a 200mbit fibre backbone, which runs in orange overhea d cables along the central aisle. That's 4,500 ethernet connections.

In addition there's a 6mbit Internet pipe, around four-times your average ISP's bandwidth.

Unfortunately the network had an alarming propensity for falling over and kicking its heels in the air. Initial problems with equipment delivery (two essential fibre switches were lost in transit from New York - try getting a replacement on Easter weekend ) conspired with more technical problems to bring the entire network grinding to a regular halt. As the decidedly low-tech sports hall noticeboards delivered another 'The network is down (now there's a surprise)' message, murmurs of discontent rise in the hall. There is even a protest organised by Norske Nerders (you can work it out), and one wonders on the network sponsors' brand benefit. In a hall of 4,000 computer kids the phrase involving a brewery comes to mind.


The geek-goods trading stalls are happy with the network, anyway. Deprived of the ability to swish huge files through the ether, sales of recordable CD ten-packs are brisk.


Links

The Gathering:

http://www.gathering.org

The Infamous Tech Crew disclaims their network:

http://www.crew.net/tg98

A list 'o worldwide parties:

http://www.livewire.com.au/pub/demos/ha/pages/calendar.html

Assembly, Finland in August:

http://www.assembly.org/

... and a quote from Assembly;

                          Just seeing the miracles that can
                        be created with the old war horse,
                             Commodore C64, should make
                          any and every coder want to push
                        his machine to the limit and beyond.
                         There is nothing you can't do with
                        your computer, break any boundaries
                        you need to, crash the machine until
                            it begs for mercy - but make
                                   your demo cool.


Daniel James 4/1998