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.
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
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 DAParry@t-online.com or email@example.com. (Note: the Website and the CompuServe
address listed in previous articles no longer exist.)
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January , 2003
The Newsletter of the
Tokyo PC Users Group
Tokyo PC Users Group,
Post Office Box 103,
Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN