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The 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 and began the Ionic Column in 1992. This column even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992. Currently based in Dusseldorf and working as a translator, he returns to Japan electronically via the Internet.

Off to war
The last column made a reference to the "word processor wars" of yore. This provides an unexpected link to this month's column, which is being written the day after the spring solstice, on the third day of the war with Iraq. In the circumstances it seems rather pointless to natter on about techie things such as file formats when things are happening out there in the Real World, but I'll make some (relatively) non-political remarks with reference to the computer side of things.

Although the past decade has not exactly been tranquil worldwide, all of a sudden one realizes that it is twelve years since Desert Storm. What is different, and what not changed?

The CNN war
The business in and around Kuwait was the breakthrough for CNN, extending the concept of news coverage to the point that a TV station devoted itself to nothing else. The war followed the Vietnam tradition of copious TV footage, but technical progress meant that it could be shown with a much shorter time lag. My understanding is that the current technology makes live coverage much easier, and smaller video cameras make it possible to film secretly. Nonetheless, there is still the human factor in all this, and it depends whether the journalists are allowed to go where they want or to film as they please.

One big video game
Since I was in Japan at that time, do not understand Japanese and did not have a TV set, I missed much of the coverage at the time, although I have seen much of it since then. And that includes all those pictures of explosions in the middle of the cross-hairs as the rocket or bomb sped in unerringly. It looked like a video game - and video games were developed to mimic the real pictures. The whole question of video games and war has become somewhat more vexed in view of the reports that some people either have a problem telling which is which - the schoolkids who mowed down their schoolfriends in a hail of gunfire - or practiced their future havoc in digital form with a shoot 'em up game. Or how the 9/11 pilots reportedly practiced their final flights with the help of Microsoft's well-known Flight Simulator program.

One big network
I was slightly bemused to see on German TV a command headquarters in the Middle East for the US military, with long rows of tables with laptops. No doubt the PCs are all networked together, and no doubt they use the server edition of Windows XP. Speculate as one will on the meaning of "Blue Screen of Death." Or whether a Marine gunnery sergeant gets a quicker response from the Microsoft helpline than we do. At any rate I could not help thinking back to my days of working with networks and the numerous problems that arise, and wondering how the whole thing looked behind the scenes; perhaps jungle warfare now means sorting out the mess of cables. Military service in the computer room is undoubtedly a lot less arduous and dangerous than in the field, but presumably it still requires a uniform and a flattop haircut. So much for the MIT hackers of the early days, a scruffy bunch of geeks with pocket protectors, a hygiene problem, and incredible skill in the then new field of computing. Of course the military took a keen interest in the new technology from the start, since it is perhaps ironical that the two factors for which computers were first applied were for ballistics calculations and cryptography, the only applications for which the arcane new machines seemed to have any practical application.

Much of the military hardware is seemingly the same as twelve years ago; the same planes, the same tanks, but I think we can be certain that they have been considerably upgraded in terms of the electronics, meaning the computing capacity. In 1990 we were using PCs built around the Intel 386 and 486 chips, Windows 3.0 was new and was in the process of taking over from DOS, and we were using modems to talk to each other on the electronic bulletin boards or through centralized online systems such as CompuServe. I'm sure that the military has made similar progress in twelve years.

The Internet war
I well recall the discussions about things such as the "Babylon" supergun on the BBS back at that time, interspersed with postings from the developing wars in the former Yugoslavia that went on to dominate the rest of the decade. The Internet was restricted to a handful of academic or military users at that time, bursting out to take over the world in the mid-1990s. We take it so much for granted now that it seems hard to recall that we have not had the Internet for more than a few years. In some respects it has stabilized already, with a recent report stating that the explosive growth rates are slowing down in the more sophisticated areas such as the USA and Europe, since most of the people who want Internet access already have it. But one interesting thing about how the Internet has changed matters is the way that it can distribute news. It is noteworthy that many of the less genuinely democratic countries restrict and monitor Internet usage among their citizens, but at the same time it is also interesting to see that there are other angles on the news than those provided by the mainstream media in our own countries.

Back in the days of the BBS, we passed around our comments and concerns on world affairs, but we were a small and technically-savvy bunch, a technocratic elite if you will. Now the Internet is accessible to just about everybody, and the distribution mechanisms make it possible to send a message to millions of people with a few keystrokes. This is technical progress of a high order, marred by the practical application. People somehow remain the same, whatever the technical gadgetry they have at their disposal. The salesmen and the scammers come out of the woodwork to take over the new media. Internet e-mail is a great way to stay in touch with friends, being quicker than letters or faxes and cheaper than a telephone call, but it is being polluted by the flood of spam. The "get rich quick" schemes, the scammers who need your help in freeing up frozen funds, the offers to enlarge your penis or your mental horizons, and the various chain letters asking you to do something or help somebody. I read somewhere that in the USA that more than half of the snail-mail delivered to your house is what is known as unsolicited advertising, or spam in its electronic incarnation.

Straining hard
Can we filter out the junk mail? I have set the filters in my Pegasus e-mailer to strain out the worst offenders, but I suspect that it is a waste of time. The spammers change the sending address so that the filters are out of date almost as soon as you list a particular sender, and a new trend is to include misleading headers to defeat the filters. One trick is to insert extra characters: a filter set to weed out a header that includes the magic words "penis enlargement" is fooled by the line "$p#en!senlarge%ment&". Or they use a misleading line such as "Concerning your unpaid", or they simply include random garbage that looks like the log file for a modem connection.

A view on the world
To conclude, the TPC list server has hosted a weird and sometimes wonderful variety of discussions over the years, and right now there are a lot of comments on the situation in Iraq. Yours truly is in the thick of it, as always, since the TPC is a great place to express one's opinions, to float ideas and to comment on the idiosyncracies of the world without being flamed by total strangers, thanks to the self-moderation policy. So take a look at the online community of TPC, based on Japan but extending worldwide to places such as lower Rhenania.

Comments or feedback or more information? A chance to be famous? Contact me at or (Note: the Website and the CompuServe address listed in previous articles no longer exist.)

© 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