Ionic Column - February 1996
by David Parry
Englishman David Parry lived in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. A frequent contributor to this publication, he was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990 and began the Ionic Column in 1992. This column has won a prize and an honorable mention in newsletter awards. To the Tokyo BBS community, he now lives in virtual cyberspace and teleports textually over the ether. On the physical level, he currently lives and works in Düsseldorf, that part of Germany that most resembles Japan.
Somehow I was under the impression that life would be simpler in Europe. Hardware and software would be cheaper, and of course I could order from America if it offered worthwhile savings. It ain't necessarily so.
Prices in Japan have dropping for some years, and in some cases they are very competitive if you shop around carefully. But at the same time, some of the cheap options were closed off when big mail-order vendors such as Dell and Gateway set up in Japan, and refused to sell from the USA to an address in Japan. Not coincidentally, their prices were also "localized".
But Japan is not so bad. US-made equipment is virtually the same voltage, and the Japanese Customs don't always charge tax. Here in Germany, you don't get the benefit of the doubt "as a stupid gaijin", alas, and you have to cough up. The transatlantic voltage difference has prevented me from buying either a scanner or a label printer from the USA. Neither of them had dual 110/220 V inputs.
UPS and downs
It is true that there is also a transpacific voltage difference, as Japan is a nominal 100 V and the USA is 110 V. The difference is enough to cause problems with sensitive equipment; US-made external modems tended to herniate themselves electronically, and Todd Boyle reported on the TPC BBS how his APC uninterruptible power supply fried itself through its Smartboost feature that is supposed to cope with brown-outs. Evidently it perceived Tokyo Denryoku as a non-stop brown-out and worked itself to death.
Far and away
One problem is the same: many manufacturers will not allow their products to be sold outside the USA. This has caused me problems with software upgrades, and it would have been difficult to order an HP scanner. In one case I could not get a copy of MS-DOS even after making the obvious point that I did not want to struggle with software and manual written in German.
Language is another issue. No, not my sotto voce assessment of the unhelpful vendors, but whether I can get the English version. The more specialist products, such as network cards, have everything in English, but DOS and Windows have been localized. So too have printer drivers, as I discovered when I bought a LaserJet 4 with PostScript a year ago. Until I finally obtained the original English drivers, the PCL printer options in Windows programs offered the "Unteres Fach" instead of the Lower Tray. The PostScript driver had not been translated, fortunately.
Scanning the horizon
The next item on my budget is an HP scanner. If I buy it from the UK, everything will be in English, or a close approximation. If I buy it from Holland, just an hour's train ride from here, either I will shortly be able to tell you the Dutch for useful expressions such as "File", "Scan" and "Quit", or it will all be in English.
Another issue is whether the scanner driver will be the old Windows 3.1 version, which I will have to upgrade one day, or whether it is a Windows 95 version that refuses to run with Windows 91, so to speak.
German phone rates are lower than NTT's, but not in terms of relative costs, since the cheap periods are shorter but not that much cheaper. I signed up for a callback service, which worked fine on voice calls when I went through the usual routine of dialing the number in the USA, waiting for the return call, and dialing the final number. I have been unable to get it to work through a fax machine or the modem, with or without a handset attached, and the electronic box I tested was a failure. A new and better electronic box is promised.
In Tokyo I used callback for about six months, but then I had a fax machine with a handset and a pass-through socket. Thus the faxmodem was actually connected through the fax machine. German Telekom provides three-way sockets for each phone outlet, and the middle socket has been slightly rewired to work better with faxes -- don't ask me what the difference is. I have tried using handsets from the wall socket and the modem "Telephone" socket, with no luck.
I don't think I used callback with a modem in Tokyo, but I did use it with PC fax. It was noticeable that the line conditions were much worse with callback, as a number of PC fax calls seemed to lose sync after a while and retrain endlessly.
When I bought the PC, I specified two hard disks, reserving the second one for use with OS/2. I was pleased that the 1 GB disks were so cheap, at just 400 DM (about US $300) each, but I was a bit disconcerted to read soon after on the TPC BBS that Quantum has a poor reputation for reliability. The office server has a 730 MB Quantum Lightning and my PC has a pair of IGB Fireballs, all IDE.
A couple of days ago my PC started up with strange grinding and rubbing noises, as if something was sticking. I had the cover off in a jiffy, and could not see anything amiss, there was nothing fouling the cute little fan sitting on top of the Pentium chip, and the hard disks were fully sealed so there was no rotating spindle to be fouled by a ribbon cable or the like pressed up against it.
The sounds of silence
After several reboots the machine ran more quietly, although not with its usual subdued hum. "Subdued hum"; back in Tokyo, my Polywell initially had a 330 MB HP hard disk (remember ESDI, anyone?) that sounded like a Jumbo starting up its engines. And even further back, I recall seeing a Priam (remember them?) SCSI external hard disk -- no, seeing is not the word, I should say hearing, or perhaps even experiencing -- that came to life with a banshee howl like the sound effects from "Top Gun". And while I was at the software company in Shinjuku in 1984, I remember we had a sample of an external disk from Hitachi that held the princely total of 5 megabytes, and which started up with the most extraordinary cacophony of metallic twangs and burps. The Quantum runs reasonably quietly after a while, but the sound is ominously different. My first PC was an XT with a 20 MB Seagate hard disk that died after seven months of what seemed to be increasing friction, as if it was slowly and inexorably freezing up. It was replaced by an NEC drive that functioned perfectly for the remaining three years until I sold the machine.
What to do? I hurriedly backed up the disk onto tape. Twice. Then I FDISKed the previously virgin second disk and did an XCOPY of all of the original drive onto my new drive D. A note for purists; hidden files are not transferred. I would have to create the Windows swap file if I have to use the good disk as drive C. Since many of my work files are on the server and I could use another workstation if need be, I could at least continue working.
The next question is whether to replace the bad drive, or to try and do a deal with the vendor of the original PC to get a CD-ROM drive instead of a new drive. On reflection, I would prefer to wait a while before trying out OS/2, whereas I could make very good use of a CD-ROM immediately.
Somehow I have this nagging feeling with both OS/2 and Windows 95 that I would spend a fair bit of money -- mainly on the application programs and the utilities -- for a relatively small improvement. I would feel differently if there was a real "killer app" that made the changeover worth while, but I don't see any program that represents a quantum leap. Quantum!!!!!! Who said Quantum?
From around 1985 a number of hard disk maintenance programs came out, including Spinrite and Disk Technician. Spinrite seems to have disappeared long ago, and I have heard no more from Disk Technician, either the company or the product. Have they gone? Hard disks are more reliable than they used to be, but they still go wrong. Like right now, for example.
My search continues for a good high-speed modem. A couple of weeks ago I got a message from Richard Boomgaarden, a German translator who returned to Hamburg recently after several years in Tokyo. I quote in full his reply to my questions:
To: David Parry <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>Some time, tell me more about using the
Your Internet address changes with the provider, and most providers are only regional, so the Telekom would be the perfect choice since you keep your address wherever you move in Germany, and everywhere in Germany you can access via a local call. However, I don't know how "trouble-free" the Telekom currently is. But you should investigate this first.
As for ISDN, I hate it. I had it installed, and changing back to analog lines would change my phone numbers. I guess ISDN is good and fast, but with a telephone switching device for DM 1500, three numbers and two logical phone lines it is not possible to give you a busy signal when you call while I am talking on the phone (I would need a switching device for 4 to 6000 Marks!). As a fax, I have a combination unit (fax, answering machine, telephone). To use a callback service, I had to declare it as a combination unit to the switching device. The results are that I cannot fax to another ISDN fax number and that my other phones ring when I receive a fax call while the fax is busy. ISDN might be excellent, but the implementation is done by idiots. Before you get it, review every possible scenario how you use your phone lines and confirm that it works with ISDN.
Telekom is offering on-line services that are similar to CompuServe, including Internet access, but with ISDN as well, whereas most of the CompuServe nodes are 2400 or 9600 bps and ISDN is only promised. As luck would have it, Düsseldorf is one of the few 9600 bps nodes in Germany at the moment, but a general upgrade to 28,800 bps is imminent.
Thanks for the warnings, Richard. ISDN is off my shopping list for the time being.
A quick comment on Telekom being "trouble-free"; there was a major scandal about 18 months ago with fraud and wrong billings. My first phone bill was quite an eye-opener, as I was asked to pay up 450 DM for phone calls made before I had even got to Germany. A couple of furious letters resulted in a credit for the amount used, but now I hear there is another wave of billing problems at Telekom and I am scrutinizing the bills even more carefully.
How do the hackers get in? On a technical level, it is easy to decode the user number of a mobile telephone, the so-called Handys. There is also a certain amount of internal fraud within Telekom by telephone engineers. I can't prove it, but I think that is what happened to me. A major loophole for fraud is the use of US-based 0900 numbers and their German 0190 equivalents.
And how did somebody run up a bill of that size in three days? Even long-distance international calls don't spin the counters fast enough.
The computer revolution has run a predictable course. Cyber-sex, rancid GIFs and ear sex would of course be just the thing for your archetypical computer nerd. I just wish they wouldn't ask me to pay for their cyber-pleasure.
Back to work
In the next month I will have to learn FrameMaker fast. A desktop publishing job has come in, the deadline is flexible, and I think it is the end of the road for Ventura. I am not convinced that Corel has its heart and soul behind version 6 of Ventura, which has been delayed, and which was intended to address the many problems of versions 4 and 5. There is no need to put up any longer with the bugginess of Ventura 4.1 when I have FrameMaker. It's time to make the switch. But partly because of this, I will put the OS/2 test project on hold.
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