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Ionic Column      in exile

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived, worked and played in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. He was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990. The Ionic Column has been going since early 1992. It even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, David Parry returns to Japan electronically via the Internet.

Ye olde ongoing chronicle
This Ionic looks like being the ongoing chronicle of the building of my "new" PCs, or more precisely the assembly or completion of existing ones. The process started off with a foray onto the German eBay to get at least one motherboard and CPU, and went on with a successful search for a more or less complete PC. A less complete one was a good idea, in my opinion, as a full system would probably cost more for items that I would not need, such as a DVD drive or (German) keyboard, and there was also the consideration that a box without a hard disk would survive the inevitable battering that it would get from the German post office. Also, older PCs tended to have hard disks that were too small to be useful.

But, note that in general it is cheaper to buy a full system, as the extras will not add all that much to the price. I had to buy a video card and a hard disk at full retail price, but it still worked out bit cheaper than buying a full system. I happened to have some suitable spare memory after attempting to upgrade my Pentium II /350 system, although I may yet buy another stick to bring both systems up to 256 MB. But on balance, I am beginning to wonder if I did the right thing, given the amount of extra work that has been involved and the fact that the motherboard I bought seems to be dead.

Moving house
So what do I have? The old Pentium II /350 that was my main PC is going to be my communications PC, with the ISDN and ADSL connections plus the appropriate e-mail programs. It will continue to house my Grundig dictation system so that I can e-mail the dictated files directly without have to move them over the network or via Zip disks - the files quickly get too big to fit on a floppy. The AMD K6/400 box is undergoing a heart transplant at the moment and will metamorphose into a Pentium III/450 once the purchases from eBay have been set up--not without problems so far. The biggest problem appears to be that the "new" Tekram motherboard is totally non-functional, and has been pronounced non compos mentis.

The new Pentium III/750 "stripped system" will be used as my main working PC once everything has been installed and will have very few extra cards, apart from a SCSI adapter with no BIOS to use with my old Trust 9600 color scanner and the SCSI Zip drive. This PC will get a CD burner, since the old one will be left in the AMD. And the old AMD chip, with its motherboard, might get a new lease of life in another box. Once that has been assembled into a minimal system, I can donate it to my parents. Since they are currently using a 486, a Pentium-type system will be quite a bit faster, and I gather that their requirements are none too demanding anyway. The Pentium III/450 will be "donated" to a friend in Poland, although it will be available for me to use for work whenever I visit.

So why should I go to the expense of rebuilding a PC to send it to Poland to use for a relatively short time each year? When I have a laptop available? The short answer is that laptops are only really useful if mobility is crucial, whereas I always work from the same place in Poland and the only thing that needs to be portable is the data. As somebody wrote some years ago, the ideal size and weight of a portable computer is a box of floppies. The only difference now is that I need to carry a few CDs as well.

Laptop woes
By and large, I have not been all that satisfied with my laptop. The screen and the hard disk are too small, I need to plug in a keyboard and an external mouse to be able to do any real work, and you are still tethered to a mains cord to all intents and purposes. To my mind, working on the move is a bit of a myth. The battery life is too short, and there are the personal issues if you are using a laptop in a plane or a train; do you really want people to read over your shoulder, and do you really want to inflict the constant clacking of the keyboard on other people? Gawd knows that far too many members of the general public have no such constraints. Is there anyone who has not wanted to strangle an obnoxious brat with an electronics game that clicks and beeps as he--it is nearly always he, for some reason--frantically works the controls? But adulthood does not necessarily bring an improvement, as there are obnoxious grown-ups who converse at loudhailer volume with their mobile phones. A new meaning to the phrase vox populi, perhaps.

Laptop goes?
A quick aside at this point: the latest PC Rag contains a prediction that laptops will replace desktops before long. I may be wrong here, but I have a feeling that I have also seen predictions that even smaller devices, such as palmtops and super- telephones, will eventually sweep away big, clunky laptops. But will they? Mobile telephones will probably shrink into something between a pair of spectacles and the new radio microphones that clip over your ear; I have seen such a device already, but I wonder how you are expected to dial numbers. Voice recognition has its limits, especially in a noisy environment, and human fingers cannot be miniaturized. Or are the likes of Nokia and Panasonic diversifying into genetic engineering to breed the telephone users of the future?

Virtual keyboards
The problem that I see is that we will continue to need keyboards and various controls in the form of buttons and switches for a long time yet. I was intrigued by a report via the Internet that Siemens has developed a virtual keyboard that is projected onto a suitable surface, and the system detects the actions of the user on the keys through some piece of electronic wizardry. My first thoughts were; what is a suitable surface, and how accurate is the action of the keys? My flying fingers find the wrong keys all too frequently, but at least I know it was own fault and not the keyboard's. It is true that elderly keyboards can develop a mind of their own, but by and large it is a case of WYTIWYG--what you type is what you get.

Screening out
The question of screens is one that I have left to the end of this section, given that technical developments will probably make any predictions totally risible within a surprisingly short time. Mobile devices and telephones have the problem that the screens are very small and cannot show much information. Or for people like me who now need reading glasses as a result of encroaching decrepitude ("don't be rude about our beer- -you too will be old and weak one day"), no information at all unless it is shown suitably large. Laptops are getting thinner and thinner, but the other dimensions are determined by the size of a usable keyboard and by the wish of users for a bigger screen.

Only project
The only way out of the dilemma for both cases is to use projection systems of some kind, short of a Neuromancer-like implanting of electronics. Personally, I have my doubts that any but the most dedicated Net junkie would opt for surgery to be permanently online, but then people have done weirder things in the past. Most current projection systems have the limitation that they depend on a suitable surface to throw the image on. Many offices and homes have plain white walls, but a coloured or textured surface is less suitable. The alternative, short of holograms, is to wear special spectacles that project the image onto the lens. Such things already exist. One problem with such devices would be the amount of power required. Maybe we will end up wearing cyber-glasses with built-in telephone, and a cable to a power pack at your waist? Or perhaps a cyber-hat, something a bit like a miner's helmet or the head torches used by mountaineers, with the batteries perched on your noggin.

Right way up
With prices dropping for "glass" monitors, a spare 19 incher for Poland would not cost all that much. The alternative would be a flat screen monitor, costing perhaps twice as much for about the same actual screen area. And that calculation is based on the one with the best value for money, according to a recent PC rag review, which gave the nod to CTX. The advantage is that many of these screens can be turned on their side to provide viewing in portrait mode, which makes a great deal of sense for a text-basher and word- whacker like yours truly. I gave the matter some thought a few years ago, when 15" monitors were still the norm, and companies such as Pivot has pivoting monitors. But the mechanics begin the resemble something of a shipyard even on a smaller tube, and I dread to think of turning a 19" monitor on its side in view of the not inconsiderable weight. Flat screen monitors are coming down in price and have the advantage of being portable-- which is less of an advantage if there is a risk of a visit from the light-fingered.

One consideration is that LCD TFT monitors may drop in price radically once the new OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens hit the market. Sanyo is supposed to be bringing one out by the end of the year. OLEDs are supposed to offer richer and more saturated colors and to have virtually no problems with a narrow viewing angle, but I was under the impression that they could achieve as high a resolution as LCDs. As if that necessarily matters much; all I want is size.

Cyber-surgeon wanted
And back to the here and now. The biggest problem with laptops is when--not if--something goes wrong, since parts are difficult to get and fiendishly expensive. You also need to find a repairman with the delicate touch of a microsurgeon, otherwise he can quickly do a lot of very expensive damage by rummaging through the tightly-packed innards of modern laptops. By contrast, surgery on a desktop is cheap and virtually risk-free, unless you get some especially ham-fisted clown who brutally flexes the motherboard when trying to insert a stubborn card and thus risks causing fine cracks that can open up when the board warms up in use, causing intermittent faults that are infuriatingly hard to detect.

The burning question
That leaves the question of whether to buy a new CD burner. I have decided against getting a second one just now and putting the trusty Ricoh into the box destined for Poland. Although good CD burners are really cheap, I have had enough expenses and will use my old one a bit longer.

The newer CD burners are much faster than mine, and cheaper too. Most of them now are IDE models, which can handle raw mode. Translation: you can copy almost any CD with the appropriate program, whereas most SCSI burners cannot handle raw mode. My Ricoh is not on the very short list of ones that can. The extra speed is really handy when copying large volumes of data in a hurry, as I found when I was backing up large chunks of my AMD system prior to shifting the e-mail programs to the Pentium II/350. I had wanted to use CD-RW disks for that task, but my burner only handles up to 4x for CD-RW and I would have had to erase part of one of the disks first. Time was short, so I just reached for my box of el cheapo blanks and burnt the data at the usual rip-roaring 6x.

Newer burners claim to be to handle up to 24x, although not all the media available supports such dizzy speeds, and I have heard that the maximum throughput that you can hope to get is equivalent to about 16x. In any case I have been told music can only be copied at 1x or 2x at full quality, although another source said that a good model such as the Plextor can burn melodiously at full speed. I don't know; this is a question that perhaps the reader can answer for me?

To round off this somewhat disjointed Ionic, my two PC systems are very much "under construction". My friend and I had a considerable number of unexpected problems with both the hardware and Windows 2000, but at least I have one PC and an e-mail system working. We got Pegasus up and running, and I will replace Outlook Express once everything is set up, but one issue is that I will change it for the full registered version, which might be a bit slicker in handling multiple accounts and ISPs.

And ADSL has been a chapter in itself, but probably not of much interest outside das Vaterland. Seems that Telekom has been making some sneaky and unannounced changes to the protocols used, and my brand-new combo ISDN-ADSL card would not work with the old system sprouting out of the wall here. More on the never-ending story next month!

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© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

May , 2002

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN