Ionic Column -- June 1997
Englishman David Parry lived in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a TPC member from 1986. A frequent contributor to the AJ, 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.
This month's column is something of a potpourri, meaning that I do not have a specific topic this time. I seldom get the kind of weird e-mail that was the subject of the last column. So now is a good time to again make some general comments.
Looking at the more recent copies of the AJ, it is noticeable that there is a change in the topics. The AJ was always strong on self-help and explanatory articles, but these days there is much more in two particular areas; the Internet, and computing in Japanese.
The latter topic has come up increasingly often in recent years, reflecting a number of changes in computing in Japan; more Japanese-language software is available, and more programs from (mainly) the USA have been converted into Japanese. To a large extent I think that Windows and TrueType fonts have made it much easier to go nihongo. A few years ago it would have been necessary to buy a separate PC with special hardware, whereas these days all you really need is a Japanese keyboard. And even that is not essential. DOS/V started the trend, but WIN/V and Japanese Windows 3.X really made it possible to use and print Japanese without needing to buy an honest-to-Nihon pee shee and purintaa.
I would also say that the articles are now aimed at a more sophisticated user than was formerly the case. The recent survey would seem to bear this out, listing strong interest in the Internet and Japanese-language or bilingual computing. Old standbys such as word processors and databases do not attract much interest. Perhaps this is because there are already a number of sources for help for relative beginners.
This is a topic that I have discussed from time to time with Paul Cipywnyk in e-mail, and it is evidently one that concerns the TPC executives; whither the BBS? Or, the BBS is withering. The amount of traffic is way down from what it used to be, so perhaps people prefer to Net-surf instead. Do they really prefer the virtual company of flame-happy total strangers? To me, the Net lacks any sense of community. The Tokyo BBSs such as TPC and Patrick Hochner's P&A were a vital part of computing in Tokyo, not least because a desperate appeal for help on technical matters (nearly) always got a sympathetic hearing, and very often a solution as well.
On the other hand, my e-mail is truly international, and I do not just mean the flood of breathless e-mail promising instant virtual riches. I mean that I can easily and cheaply remain in contact with friends around the world. Initially I cut my postage costs by sending faxes to those of my friends who were suitably equipped. This made for a great saving when keeping in touch with Japan, for example. Now my phone bill is dropping as the same people turn up online.
The economics of "paper e-mail" (faxing) were fairly constant in Japan and Germany; a one-page fax cost about a third the price of snail-mail for international communications, and less than a quarter locally. Note the caveat about keeping it short on international faxes. I suppose that a multi-page fax is proportionately cheaper per page, due to the time taken to connect and disconnect, but the international rates discourage verbosity anyway.
Despite this increasing gap in the cost of communication, the post offices still fight to increase their rates. Mail in Germany is not cheap, and the proposed price increases put it at the top of the world league. One major annoyance here is that packages and parcels are relatively very expensive. And I used to think Japan was bad.
You can get at least two pages of A4 paper into an air mail envelope and still wriggle under the 10 gram limit; the truly thrifty and Hibernian can pen their missives on onion-skin paper and sneak no less than 4 pages in. But does anyone still use the stuff? Moreover, it won't go through a printer. I never tried using airmail paper in a daisywheel printer, not least because you would probably need to put another sheet of thicker paper underneath it to prevent damage to the printer platen, and there would be a big problem with the paper slipping. As it was, daisywheel printers and typewriters sometimes punctuated the text with small holes-literally, as commas, periods and colons hammered their way to freedom.
Another change concerns technical help. It used to be that I would send a fax and hope for a reply. Getting hold of updated software drivers meant a trip to a BBS, often located in the USA. Having negotiated the rigmarole of logging on and registering, one often had to wait a day before being authorised to do more than peek at the list of options. Next day one logged in again, gritted one's teeth and wallet, and prayed that the download would not fail, and that the file would not be corrupted. Telekom and KDD smiled.
These days there are homepages with ftp transfer facilities, or the long plod through the Compuserve menus. But both take place at local calling rates, which for me means within Düsseldorf. Even a 1 MB monster download on a 14.4 Kbps modem is relatively painless, while with ISDN it is almost innocuous.
One point is that the vendor BBSs tend not to have ultra-fast modems, and in any case I have found that international transfers do not always go at the full speed of a 28.8 Kbps modem. And in the case of the ELSA ISDN card + modem, nowhere near. Logging into TPC at 1200 (gasp!) or 2400 bps (sob!) was like an acid flashback to 1987, but the wretched thing could do no better. It is up for sale now...
Incidentally, the ELSA combo card or something similar is almost certainly the only way to combine ISDN and a modem on one PC when using Windows. I noticed that COMM.DRV is replaced by the ISDN card vendor's equivalent, which means that an external modem is totally lost. Once again, the only way to run ISDN and a faxmodem is to have two separate PCs. It looks as if they can coexist under DOS as long as they are not used simultaneously, due to the COM port allocations, and one or both of the units would have to be external. I would be interested to know if there is another solution.
Meantime, I am having all kinds of problems with the SCSI system. WinWord regularly crashes with "Disk full" errors when editing large files or file with graphics, which I find comical when viewing the amount of free space on my new disk, and which might be related to a memory problem. The swap file should be big enough and I now have 64MB of RAM, which seems to be wasted on Windows 3.1. I have pestered the SCSI card vendor (Iwill), the SCSI driver vendor (Advansys), and Partition Magic, just in case the partitioning of the disk has something to do with it. The jury is still out.
And just to make my month, Compuserve is beginning to suffer from dramatic slowdowns in the afternoon. As I write, it is Saturday evening, I have a humungous 1.6 MB file to ship to Stuttgart, and Compuserve is bowling along at a brisk limp. And I have to upload that mega-file, and this Ionic file, before I leave for a few days early tomorrow. Now if I had a PC at home, I could upload in the middle of the night. Anyone for 24-hour computing?
Comments or feedback or more information? Contact me on Compuserve on 100575,2573 (or DAParry@compuserve.com) or e-mail by anonymous ftp to ftp.core-ad.co.jp/parry.
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