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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.

The last Ionic promised more of the online exchanges with Marc Prior, but that will have to be held over for a month. Time was short for both of us, and in my case I had to finish a pair of translations before leaving for holiday, leaving the office barely before the witching hour. Marc has also been busy from what I hear, and for both of us it looks as if 2003 will be more the same, but he did outline his plans for possible future articles on a Linux theme. Work permitting, and of course the AJ has to take second place to anything that brings in money. While it is nice to have a moment of literary and online fame, more mundane considerations often get in the way of the artistic muse.

Save the trees
A message came from Mike Lloret just a few days before I left to tell me that the "dead trees" edition of the AJ was to be axed, if you will pardon the metaphor. As always, it comes down to money. The sad truth is that it is cheaper to distribute electrons than paper. This move is not altogether unexpected, since it had been mooted before more than once, and other organizations that are in a similar situation are doing or will do the same thing in all likelihood.

Already obsolete when new
The big advantage of a Net presence for any organization that is primarily using a newsletter in its literal sense, as a source of news about future events, is that a Webpage can be constantly updated to include last-minute changes. A hiking club that I was a member of in Tokyo now publicizes its events primarily in the Internet for that very reason, and in the past the compliant had always been that the newsletter was out of date the moment that it went to the printer! That is not quite true in itself, but the lead time for the printing and distribution meant that it took at least a week before it plopped through the mailbox, and nochanges or additions could be made except by phoning around.

Hard facts on hard copy
The cost issue is very simple: the most expensive way to keep a permanent hard copy record of a document is to print it out on an inkjet. And I would not bank on it being permanent either, since ordinary black ink for inkjets is supposedly not all that permanent, certainly less so than toner. A laser printout is the next on the scale of costs, followed by photocopying. The latter is the only reliable way to get double-sided printing, which is a rare feature in most computer printers. As it happens, one of the reasons that I got my HP 980 DeskJet is that it can print on both sides, but it takes quite a while to do so. Printing out my Trados manual from the CD was a question of selecting about 30 pages and then going for lunch. While laser printers have dropped in price and generally got faster, making 8 to 10 ppm printers quite affordable, you are really looking at a monster for network use before you get the option of double-sided printing. Interestingly, the prices for color laser printers have dropped out of the stratosphere, but against that, I can only say that I have never seen one installed anywhere. Color still seems to be the province of inkjet printers for all but the more specialized users.

Mindless but error-prone
But I digress. Copiers are cheaper than laser printers, and the fancier models can print on both sides, collate the results, and in some cases even staple the pages together. These sort of copiers are mainly used by advertising companies or consultants needing, say, 30 copies of a 50 page report, and on a frequent basis. Secretaries are too expensive for a mindless but error-prone operation such as collating, whereas I have more or less happy memories from the past of collating, folding and stapling newsletters and publications of various kinds by hand. The next step was offset printing, taking a carefully pasted-up printout of our magnum opus to a jobbing printer and getting a finished publication back. The economics of offset printing in general are that it gets much cheaper per copy if the print run is larger, and the minimum that is worth doing is around 100 copies. That may have changed with some of the new digital printing technologies that I have heard about and seen at Photokina, but I have no direct experience of them. Also, one problem remains: if you want a regular type of publication that is folded in the middle and stapled or fastened, you are caught in the law of four; the number of pages (sides) must be a multiple of four. The copy has to be stretched or pruned to fit, or more devious methods such as a change in font size are resorted to. Take a look at past copies of the AJ and you will see what I mean.

Carpe diem
Back to the question of paper. If the newsletter is not so much for news, but what I might call representational purposes, then perhaps a case can be made for a paper edition. If the newsletter is retrospective, describing what was done in the recent past and summarizing it, with a faint whiff of preserving the moment for a probably uncaring posterity, then paper can make a claim for being the better medium, and just possibly a longer-lived one. Digital data has the potential to be immortal, since it can be copied indefinitely without any loss of quality or accuracy. A tape recorder was the best method to transfer music by analog means, but even the costliest equipment running at high speed with the best quality tape added its own noise and errors, plus a small but significant amount of tape hiss with each copy. Old films and photographs lose quality each time they are copied, the colours and contrast shift, the shadows become darker and blocked up or the brighter parts, the highlights, become washed out, fine details are lost. Old films from the 1960s and 1970s shown on TV exhibit quite noticeable deterioration from what I remember from viewing them in the cinema when they came out, and I do not think that I am just suffering from a bad case of nostalgia. Newer films shown in their digital versions also lack the characteristic "noise" from dust, scratches, and the tramline scratches that develop from repeated passes through a projector. Look and compare.

Rushing into print
Are there any other advantages for paper, apart from it being a kind of "vanity publishing" for the authors and contributors? By which I mean the sort of thing whereby aspiring poets and novelists would get a printer to typeset and bind their text so that they could say that their work had got into print, albeit entirely at their own expense and perhaps for a readership in single digits. These days such people can indulge their literary vanities with a Webpage, or perhaps they are enthusiastic contributors to blogs. The kindest thing that I can say personally about blogs is that they are very democratic, allowing one and all to have their say. At least they are not as messy as spray-painted graffiti, but I leave to the reader to decide on the relative quality of such offerings. And to ponder the oft-repeated and now oftignored injunction never to rush into print. Of course, your humble author more often than not has to speed this column on its way with indecent haste to meet the already overdue deadline, and a number of typos that accidentally found their way in, like blobs of airborne detritus that seem to have a fatal attraction for freshly applied paint, but a little thought can avoid at least the most egregious examples.

A cup of tea off the top of my head
Speaking as one who has to wrestle with words for a living, it is all too clear that many of the online postings I have seen were made by people who seem to be blissfully unaware of the difference between the written and spoken style, and the "off the top of your head" postings that grace the Internet are not quite in the same league as the "stream of consciousness" school of literature. To be fair, I have read very few publications of that type, and in all honesty that style is not my cup of Flowery Orange Pekoe, but I would hazard a guess that it requires a certain amount of skill, writing experience and literary discipline, however contradictory it may sound. Researchers have already noted a number of differences between the style of e-mails and snail-mail, and within the Internet itself there are also many different styles that are current. The TPC forum is (quasi) moderated, so we get less of the witless, name-calling flame wars that make the Usenet intolerable for all but the thick-skinned.

But what sort of progress do we see in the Internet? One wonders how long it took from the discovery of the telephone to the invention of the obscene call. Luckily it took a very long time before the telemarketers discovered the marvelous ability of the telephone to intrude into one's home at any time, an ability that was fortunately held in check for a long time due to the cost factor. But now we have very cheap telephony, for local calls at least, and the Internet is to all intents and purposes free. And anonymous, with a little ingenuity. It did not take long for the results of this fortuitous combination to appear.

Brave new insults
I'll comment briefly on the new trend in anonymous abuse first, inspired partly by comments I have seen in a local newspaper about the use of SMS to send short and abusive messages to users of mobile phones. To date I have never sent an SMS, since I can do my work by e-mail instead, and an SMS message is also not as cheap. But I read that schoolkids send each other abusive and anonymous messages by SMS. Back in the good old days, it was either a mob of bullies who found safety in numbers and resorted to name- calling from a distance, or somebody would write up a suitable epithet on the blackboard. The latter nearly always ended up with the culprit getting caught, even if they did not confess, since the teacher often recognized the handwriting, and the number of suspects was in any case quite small. Not so for a telephone call that has lost its caller ID. Or somebody in Usenet with a disposable Hotmail address. The anonymity of the new media makes it hard, if not impossible, to track down the sender.

Scanning the world
This anonymity helps and hinders. A number of less politically-enlightened countries object to their citizens reading or viewing certain materials, or passing them on, but even they cannot arrest a posting that has been anonymized by passing through a couple of remailers that strip off all identifying headers. As yet I have not bothered to use such methods, but they are described in a number of sources. In response, a number of security organizations are endeavoring to scan all e-mail that passes through the Internet to look for keywords in text, for example, The object is either to haul somebody into a police station and violate his human rights or else to nobly free the world of obnoxious terrorists, depending on one's point of view. There were some interesting postings recently online at TPC by Chris Case concerning the efforts of the US authorities to sift all possible sources of information and to sniff out putative terrorists with profiling techniques, and an article by a database expert who pointed out that the job required more computing power than we have--currently, at least--and that the results would yield a huge number of false positives. True enough; we have all seen how our names and mailing addresses get transmogrified as they are passed around from one mailing list to another, and computers have problems with variations in addressing that a human can allow for.

I'll conclude with a weird aside on the world of computers and the Internet. We have all seen how the Internet has made it easier for people to get in contact with each other. Or perhaps, to be more precise, to pass around porn and to pester with sales solicitations, At any rate, it allows people with the most offbeat of interests to get in touch. A pair in Germany made news recently. One could say that they were indeed made for each other, and also perhaps for the Darwin Awards. At any rate, I find them both even weirder than Michael Jackson, my previous yardstick for the wonderfully whacky. As a police psychologist noted, there have always been people who wanted to be killed, and from time to time there are people with cannibalistic tendencies, and for the first time there was a case that combined both. In this case the Internet acted as Cupid. Curiously, both the participants in this event were in the computer business, the diner as a computer technician, the dinner as a chip developer at Siemens, and both lived for little else but the online chat rooms, having increasingly little connection with the non-virtual world. I suppose that this is evolution of a kind, but not exactly what we had in mind two decades ago when the PC revolution started, or when the Internet started to take off less than a decade ago.

And in case you are wondering, the German police are slightly at a loss as to what to charge the surviving man with. Cannibalism as such is not listed as a crime, and the victim seems to not only have consented but to have requested this bizarre fate. And this is well documented from the e-mail both parties.

And in case you are wondering, part 2, how the German police stumbled upon the still hungry manmuncher, he posted another message in the same, ahem, vein a year after disposing of his former soulmate and an alert doughnut-muncher decided to investigate.

Next month I'll be back to the bits and bytes and the postings from Marc Prior.

Comments or feedback or more information? A chance to be famous? Contact me at DAParry@tonline. com or (Note: the WWW address listed in previous articles no longer exists.)

© 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

January , 2003

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

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