Interview with Linus "Lft" Akesson

Published in Vandalism News #61
Performed by Carl "Grip" Svensson during late 2013/early 2014.

V) Do feel very welcome to Vandalism News, lft. Would you care to elaborate a bit on yourself; where do you live, what do you do for a living, what do you do in your spare time?

L) Thank you, Grip! It's a pleasure to be here.

I work at Lund University, in southern Sweden, where I'm doing a PhD in computer science. At home, my wife and I are looking after our two-year-old kid. What remains of my spare time is largely spent on obscure projects involving computers, electronics and music. I also like to read books, both fact and fiction. Some days, when time permits, I sit down at my piano, studying mostly works of Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninov. I'm also an amateur percussionist, so from time to time I get called in to participate in local symphonic productions. And recently I've become hooked on Go, the ancient strategy game.

All of this makes it seem like I have a lot of spare time, but in reality it's a constant struggle to sneak some recreation into a busy schedule. I try to be disciplined about what I do sometimes, in order to actually bring some projects to completion.

V) Interesting! Is it possible to, in a few lines, summarise what you're researching - perhaps you've got a working title for your thesis?

L) Well, usually the title is the last thing you write, right after the abstract. I'm involved in a research project where we are merging some concepts from pervasive computing (loose coupling, distribution) with realtime control systems, with the goal of making it easier to integrate robot parts from different vendors. My part is mainly about network protocols and software frameworks.

V) How and when did you become interested in computers? When did you get your first computer, what make and model was it?

L) I was apparently fascinated by technology already as an infant, especially cables of all kinds. My father bought himself an Amiga 1000 back in 1987 (I think), when I was six years old, and I ended up spending a lot of time in front of it. He also got me started with programming in BASIC, a skill I could then cultivate on my own thanks to the public library. In retrospect, I see the attitude of my father reflected in my own approach to computers. For him, at least in those days, a computer was a thing you bought so that you could do programming at home. I still regard coding as the natural way to interact with a computer, and software as that part of the computer that you make yourself.

As I grew older, of course, I got access to games through school friends. Some of these would run on the Amiga 1000, but many did not fit in the 256 KB of RAM. Later still (1995?), I bought my own computer, which was a used Amiga 1200, as well as a modem. This opened the gates to BBSes, online communication, and vast repositories of games, utilities and demos.


V) How and when did you become interested in the scene? What was your first personal scene experience?

L) Like most people, I first came in contact with the scene indirectly, through crack intros and later demos. My local BBS friends and I used to compose ProTracker modules and greet each other. Then we'd release them by merely uploading them to the boards. Meanwhile my coding skills were improving, so I made small games, tools, BBS doors and a few attempts at intros. I don't know if any of this has survived. Demo parties was some remote phenomenon that you occasionally read about in scrolltexts and diskmags. I think it took me a while to realise that they were actually there, that I could visit one.

The first demo party I experienced was Hype '97, where the two of us met, incidentally. My parents would not let me sleep at the party place, because they didn't know what kind of crazy people I was getting myself involved with. After the party, I remember them being impressed by the level of organisation, and the fact that so many youngsters could spend a whole weekend together without drinking exuberant amounts of alcohol.

V) Is the scene any different today compared to when you started out?

L) You mean apart from the exuberant amounts of alcohol? Yes, I think so. But I have changed too, with age, so it's hard to tell how much of the difference is due to changes in perception. It's a fact that the average scener is older now, and there has been a shift from leading edge technology to falling edge nostalgia. While we still do the impossible, beat records and break new ground, we do it in an increasingly marginalised context, and the limits we struggle against have become voluntary.

I am very happy to see a couple of new faces every now and then. For the young people who join our little community, the demo scene provides remarkable opportunities for thriving as a creative and skillful individual and making lasting impressions, even if it's only within an isolated subculture. For the scene, newcomers bring fresh perspectives that help us all evolve. But, returning to your question, surely these young minds see the scene in a radically different way than how we once saw it. For one thing, it's full of elders now.

V) Ah, yes, the old parties where drinking was prohibited (or at least not encouraged). I for one feel very at home in the rowdy, cheery atmosphere of a well lubricated scene event. However, I also enjoyed the quiet calm of Gubbdata, where the beer limit seemed to be one or two pints per person - if drinking at all. This tends to be increasingly rare. Would you say you prefer the former or the latter?

L) Both kinds are enjoyable. I would say that I drink rather modestly, but I can certainly find pleasure in having a couple of cold beers to go with the socialising. Still, it's the core scene activities that make a party worth visiting. Pure drinking events I leave to others.

V) When we first met at Hype in 1997, you were an Amiga user. You have also done a lot of stuff on other platforms, including ones you built yourself. What made you move to the C64?

L) As with most life-changing events, my decision to start seriously exploring the C64 was the result of a chain of coincidences. I was familiar with the machine, of course, and I had a brief stint of SID coding behind me. I also owned a real C64, but had no convenient way of transfering programs to it. But it was the experience of coding video routines for small microcontrollers that opened my eyes to the magnificent challenges of cycle-accurate coding, where you not only have to consider what each instruction does, but also how long it takes.

I remember standing outdoors at a large German demo party at Easter, talking to some people about how microcontrollers present challenges that are similar to those of 8-bit home computers. In his quiet but steadfast voice, radiantx remarked that 8-bit computers are still around, so there's really no need to turn elsewhere for those challenges. That planted a seed in my mind.

Later, at another party, I was talking to Jens Schoenfeld about the Turbo Chameleon. This struck me as a clever gadget that could finally let me transfer code to my C64, so I decided to get one. But before that, I reckoned I'd brush up on my C64 coding skills. That's how it all started. In the end, I never bought a Turbo Chameleon, opting for a 1541 Ultimate II instead. Half a year later I had finished my first real C64 release: Hardsync, the dance game.

V) Are you still interested in the Amiga scene as well?

L) This is a complicated matter, and several psychological factors are at play. But I suspect that other Amiga users may be tangled up in the same struggle, so please bear with me as I try to explain.

The Amiga has a special place in my heart, being the computer I grew up with. I stubbornly refused to switch to PC or Mac, and when I discovered this new-fangled Linux thing at the school computer club, I promptly bought and installed Red Hat Linux on my A1200. After running a dual-boot system (Linux and Amiga OS) for a while, I found myself preferring the Linux environment for day-to-day computing. At that point, switching to PC hardware was deceptively easy. But to this day, I have never run Microsoft Windows or Mac OS on any of my computers.

Now, what does all this have to do with the Amiga scene? I suppose the point is that to me, the Amiga is not primarily associated with games or demos. Years of platform war polemics have entrenched me in the position that the Amiga is a powerful general-purpose machine that, properly expanded, can be used as one's primary computer.

But this rhetoric appears to have backfired. Once I had switched to mainstream hardware, I walked the path of so many others, upgrading step by step to today's multi-gigahertz machines with gigabytes of memory. Compared to this, the Amiga can be regarded as a machine full of challenging limitations. But to admit that, I must go back on years of passionate Amiga advocacy, a kind of techno-idealism that formed a large part of my young adulthood.

Therefore I find it irrationally hard to judge Amiga demos from a technical point of view. The design I can appreciate: Jesus Christ Motocross and Rink A Dink: Redux were deeply impressive in that regard. But while I can rationally see how these demos might be technical achievements, with the coders pushing hard against the limitations of the machine, it is emotionally very tempting to brush it off in a cavalier manner: Surely that's easy to do on an Amiga, because it's a powerful machine, and it was designed for awesome graphics and music in the first place.

V) As a fellow Amiga user, I have to say this description is highly eloquent. You are a multi-talented man, producing both hardware, code and music. Do you find any of these activities more fun or rewarding than the others?

L) There are times when I favour one over the others, but overall I would say that all of them are rewarding in proportion to the time spent on them. All of these pursuits have the property that you can dig deeper and discover new things.

V) You held a talk at Revision 2013 on C64 programming called "poems for bugs", explaining how C64 demo coding differs radically from any programming paradigm or best practice taught in today's functional- or OO-oriented world. Here you also discuss the use of "raster paper", a grid on which you can pencil in assembly instructions to best make them fit with the clock cycles available for each raster line. They remind me slightly of musical scores. Would you say you approach composing with a coder's mindset, or do you approach coding with a composer's mindset? Do they differ?

The subjects of programming and music are in many senses radically different. However, there are some fascinating areas of overlap. One of them is the one you mention, the cycle-accurate coding style that is so ubiquitous in C64 demos. The coder is faced with an intricate puzzle of time, memory, computation and registers, just like a composer may work with an intricate puzzle of time, melody, harmony and dexterity. In both situations, the solution to the puzzle can often be found in a creative redefinition of the task: Do something slightly different from what you intended, and it will work out.

Another interesting area of overlap is algorithmically generated music. On my website I have published an analysis of Fratres, a work of music by the Estonian composer Arvo Part. This piece can be generated from a simple set of mathematical rules, and yet the result is a marvellously complex and beautiful journey through a set of harmonic structures. A musician's counterpart to the 4 KB intro?

VSP Lab V1.1

V) Recently, you seem to have been focusing your scene activities on C64 coding. You've explored the VSP bug and written Spindle, a track-loader. Would you say that there are still a lot of areas of the C64 to be explored, tamed or perfected by coders?

L) The C64 is a machine of quirks and peculiarities. We rarely discover new quirks these days (VSP channels being an exception), but to answer this question we must consider every possible combination of quirks. For instance, NUFLI and GOLC are powerful ideas, but they are merely new combinations of known tricks. Seen in this light, the set of possible C64 effects (impressive or not) is huge and to a substantial extent uncharted.

Safe VSP

V) What inspires you - what makes you curious?

L) Constraints and their promise of exploration and discovery. Learning, growing, understanding things, having epiphanies. Seeing something inexplicable and figuring out how it works. Doing things in eccentric ways and occasionally stumbling over something useful.

V) What kills your motivation - what bores you?

L) Compromises that interfere with the integrity and beauty of a technical design. Being interrupted, and being told what to do. Premature path planning: Working towards a realistic goal that was clearly communicated ahead of time.

The latter is of course necessary also in demo making, but it can still be a motivation killer.

V) You talk a lot about how constraints and limitations spur creativity. We also brushed the subject of composing compared to coding earlier. I can see how the SID chip has limitations compared to for example Paula or whatever modern sound hardware for PCs can do today, with more channels, effortless sample replay and so on. However, would you say that the SID chip limits composing more or less than any conventional analogue instrument?

L) There are several traditional instruments that have limitations on par with the SID chip. Consider the violin, for example. Each string acts as an independent oscillator, so in principle there is a maximum polyphony of four voices. The strings have different ranges, but each of them produces roughly the same basic waveform. However, the bow can reach at most two adjacent strings at the same time, which puts a limit on the polyphony. The violinist's left hand is also restricted in the movements it can make, so it's not possible to rapidly switch between every possible note combination. Furthermore, there are tricks for going beyond the basic capabilities of the hardware: By pushing down lightly at the correct spot of a vibrating string, it is possible to cancel some of the overtones to produce a high-pitched sound with a more brittle timbre. Thus, there are many similarities between composing for the SID chip and composing for solo violin. As a good example, I would suggest J. S. Bach's partita #2, in particular the fifth movement (the Chaconne), composed in the early 1700s. Another famous composer, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), writes about it:

"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings."

Notice how Brahms doesn't just express admiration for the music as such; he specifically highlights how Bach is able to get so much out of a physically small instrument with limited polyphony. While we tend to use a more informal vocabulary when commenting on SID tunes on CSDb, it is not uncommon to find praise that is remarkably similar in character to the Brahms quote.

V) You most often operate alone - I'm guessing it's by choice. Do you think you could thrive in one of the big demo groups?

L) I've had the honour of being invited to a couple of demo groups, but have decided to remain solo for the time being. This is not an easy choice: I stand in awe of many fellow sceners, and would not mind collaborating with them, having a great time and seeing what we could achieve together.

But working alone has other benefits, and spare time is scarce. Communication has an element of commitment to it, and putting words on ideas tends to make them rigid. At least to some extent, I believe that creativity stems from the unconscious exploration of fuzzy ideas. Working alone gives me the freedom to put off projects for long stretches of time, and then pick them up in a completely different context. Also, I often find that the process of figuring things out is more rewarding than the resulting artefact, and dividing the work would involve missing out on some of that exploration.

V) Are you considering doing any more custom hardware projects?

L) I have a long list of more or less developed ideas and projects, and some of them involve custom hardware. But at this stage it's not possible, nor desireable, to know whether any of these ideas will eventually turn into a release.

V) Has becoming a father changed your outlook on life? On the scene in any way?

L) Yes, definitely. Having a child forces you to reboot your life completely, to an extent that is very hard to imagine beforehand. You literally lose all your spare time and all your routines overnight. Then, with time, you gradually get to rebuild them. That forces you to get your priorities straight, and reflect on what you really want.

During that process, I have chosen to remain involved in the scene, at the cost of putting some other things on hold. So even if I spend less time on the scene in total, being a scener has become more of a deliberate, active choice.

V) Back in the day your handle was Lairfight, which is now shortened to lft. Have you ever gotten any stick from the dudes in Fairlight?

L) Ah, the handlestory. I picked Lairfight as a login name when visiting my first BBS, and it sort of stuck. I would abbreviate it to lft whenever a shorter name was called for, and in circles where the reference to Fairlight wouldn't be immediately obvious. Then, as the novelty of the wordplay wore off, I started to prefer lft. It was a nice three-letter combination that nobody else used (except Lafayette Airport, apparently).

I remember being asked what lft was short for at the bonfire outside Backslash 2007, in the presence of the local Fairlight delegation. They were quite cool about it, and amused. I was asked whether I hadn't considered the practical problems that would ensue if I were to one day join them.

V) You touched the subject slightly before, but let's get down to brass tacks - what are your thoughts about the future of the scene? What would you hope for and what is a realistic scenario? And what about yourself, do you think you'll be active on the scene in ten or twenty years time?

L) Predicting is hard, especially when it involves the future. I think that the scene, in particular the C64 part of it, to a large extent follows a single generation. There were dips when members of our generation started getting jobs and families, and there might be revivals when we retire and when the kids move out. One can easily imagine a time when the average scener, myself included, is 70 years old, just like the average ham radio operator now. On the other hand, if we want the scene to survive us, we have to spend more effort on making ourselves visible. Let me elaborate a bit on why that might be worthwhile.

We were privileged to be young when computers were simple, understandable and fun. Today, computers are hidden inside well-polished consumer products, and it's fairly evident that most kids today see the consumer products and not the computers. But in an increasingly computerised society, growing up as a computer illiterate might put you at the mercy of a few technically savvy people, who either design the systems or break into them. Bringing the joys of real, tangible, old-skool computing to a larger audience today might be an important step towards leveling the playing field for future generations. This adds a new dimension to Jack Tramiel's original vision: Computers for the masses, not the classes.

V) Thank you ever so much for answering these questions. Any final words?

L) Thanks for having me! And greetings to the entire scene, for being there and providing an endless supply of inspiration.

V) Please list your top 5 C64 demos, and why:

L) In the hope of maybe helping somebody discover a gem that they might otherwise miss, I will take the liberty of responding to a different question: Name five great C64 demos that aren't already in CSDb Top 20.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Soiled Legacy (Resource, 2001)
This is a solid demo with impressive parts and great flow. Good synchronisation and highly polished new-skool effects make this one a must-see.

Boogie Factor (Fairlight, 2005)
A stylish journey to the 70s, with a lovely soundtrack and an entertaining mix of traditional effects and fresh design ideas.

First you live, then you die (Fairlight, 2007)
Technically, this is a complete anti-demo with wired pictures, simple music and no effects, but I find it oddly compelling and have watched it many times. A small, emotional production that works very well for what it sets out to do.

Apparatus (Lepsi De & Miracles, 2011)
Here we get a raw display of no-nonsense coding, along with industrial-themed graphics and music. The fade-ins!

Tsunami (Booze Design, 2005)
Based on a recurring theme of translucency versus opacity, this demo delivers a bunch of technically advanced effects in a gift wrap of exquisite design and consistent colour choices.

A word from the editors:

Please visit lft's home page, to read more about Spindle, Poems for Bugs, raster papers and huge amounts of other interesting stuff. The VSP bug is discussed in greater detail in lft's own article published in Vandalism News #60.