Gegenschein 56 June 1988


Once again, Jean has taken sneaky advantage of having some surplus time to do a fanzine. It probably doesn't hurt that she is also far more efficient than me. Add to that visiting fan jan howard finder, who foolishly offered to delivery some mail to the USA, and you have the perfect recipe for fanzine time!

Home Economics

Peter slash and burn, our neighbour, has been removing more trees, and cutting lawns. No longer is the place a jungle. We even have semi-ambitious plans for extra concrete paths, and possibly storage sheds or garages or something, in the future. I'm beginning to feel domesticated.

Salt Mine Time

Work at the School of Mathematical Sciences continues to occupy an unreasonable amount of my time. Following our successful installation of a Hewlett Packard 9000/550 minicomputer in 1986, and a MIPS in 1987, the School is far less dependent upon the University Computer Center. Although we still run 18 student terminals linked via a Local Area Network to the Amdahl mainframe, we now also have 16 student terminals directly connected to the MIPS, and 6 HP lines available via the Local Area Network, plus 8 IBM PC clones used as graphics terminals directly linked to the HP. (And, he said in disgust, I had to hand wire every one of them, from the 22nd floor to the 16th floor.)

In short, our students now have exclusive access to perhaps 70% of the computing power, and 30% of the terminals that are available to the entire rest of the University were they to use the Computer Center exclusively. Under the circumstances, it isn't surprising that at least some of the Computer Center people appear to believe that we are trying to get rid of them. (This obviously isn't true. If we stopped using the Computer Center, we would have to supply COBOL, and none of us want COBOL anywhere near our computers.)

Our major computer purchases this year were IBM PC clones for a number of the staff, to replace terminals, plus doubling the number in the student PC labs. The term "major" is, of course, somewhat relative. Our funding is tiny, with typically less than $50,000 a year available for equipment, so we try very hard to get good value from it. At the time the School started thinking of new purchases, the Computer Center was in the middle of changing their recommended brand of PC. I wasn't very impressed by the old recommended brand (their office was too far away for quick service), so I searched for and found a local importer of clones, Alfa Computers, and made sure I was well known to the owners and their workshop technicians.

Unfortunately, the University purchasing department wasn't pleased about this. They sat on our first order for 8 XT's for a couple of months, until the Computer Services people had put out a tender for suppliers for the whole University. Meanwhile, we wanted to order an extra 8 XT's and 8 AT's for various staff members. Purchasing sat on that, and then told us we couldn't order from the company we wanted to use because of the tender. We pointed out that we were not the Computer Services department, and were not bound by their decision. We pointed out that the Computer Advisory committee's tender decision was advisory. We obtained confirmation of these points from those two bodies. We pointed out that we would save money buying where we wanted to buy. A sometimes acrimonious exchange of phone calls and memos followed. Purchasing still insisted that, since there was a tender selected by Computer Services, we would have to go out to tender ourselves for our 16 XT's. In triumph, we pointed out that Alfa had tendered to Computer Services, and that we intended to accept the machines and prices they had tendered (they weren't precisely what we wanted, but better to have something close now, rather than more delays).

There was silence for a time from Purchasing, and we settled down to asking each week whether our order had been placed. Eventually we got a letter from them, asking us to justify our choice, since it wasn't the one the Computer Center had chosen. In the full flight of fury, I wrote several pages, pointing out that none of the four grounds on which the Computer Center objected were valid for us. I admitted that Alfa couldn't support 600 computers a year ... but we only wanted 16, and figured they could support that. I pointed out that we liked the non AT style keyboards they supplied, since they were closer in layout to our normal terminals that all our students used. We considered the dual scan (monochrome and CGA frequencies) monitors an advantage, since some of our programs needed to run on CGA video cards. We couldn't see why Computer Center objected to cases that opened by undoing five screws, since they intended to get a third party service organisation to do repairs, but we liked it because it decreased the chances of people (that is, our inquisitive students) changing the way we set up the computers.

Dr Lindsay Botten, the lecturer who had been most active in promoting computers for the staff, wrote a more succinct reply (albeit he was no less infuriated), saying we agreed with the Computer Center that the cheapest PC's tendered were unsatisfactory, and so we were taking the next cheapest (that is, the supplier we wanted right from the start). He then started agitating for the removal of Purchasing, in favour of us doing our own ordering. I was sufficiently annoyed to write a little purchasing follow up system that automatically generates complaining reports about equipment not ordered and/or not delivered. Since Purchasing have apparently been waiting all year for a computerised order system (to replace their manual system) to be provided by Computer Center, this didn't go down all that well with either!

The orders finally went out some three months after we asked, far too late to be used in the current semester, and right in the middle of a memory chip shortage that made any sort of computer supply problematical. I was not impressed.

As a result of all these delays, our initial delivery of 16 XT clones came at the worst possible time. The School of Physical Sciences had organised the First Australian Forth Conference. Since I'm interested in that, and had some experience organising the 1987 Unix conference, I'd attended meetings, and intended to help out at the conference. You guessed it. Our delivery stalled until the Thursday the conference opened. I managed to see Chuck Moore, inventor of Forth, give his opening address, and then had to rush to take delivery of PC's.

As Andrew, Alfa's owner, unloaded the first 9 PC's at our loading dock, he mentioned it would only take one more trip.

"What about our monitors?" I asked.

"I wondered about that, since you always got prices including monitors", said Andrew, "but the order didn't include monitors. I assumed you had enough, or found a cheap supply."

"We wanted monitors. Our requisition and our specification included them."

"We didn't get a specification, and the order didn't include monitors. Gee, that is a pity, because those monitors are hard to get. We probably don't have any more, except the ones we put aside for your AT order next week."

I wasted what might have been my lunch break checking that we had indeed specified and requisitioned monitors, and determined that Purchasing had indeed cut my two page, detailed, laser printed specification down to a two line order that didn't include monitors. Lindsay Botten and I charged down to Purchasing (making obscene phone calls is probably illegal here) clutching our evidence, only to find that their head was out for the day. For some reason, the second in charge was most reasonable about accepting amended orders. We then headed for Alfa with a trolley, finally located six monitors of the right type hidden away in the piles of stuff at Alfa, and took them straight away. The other ten will arrive sometime ... maybe! Luckily, only 8 PC's were for staff members, and we did have a few spare monitors floating round.

I went back to my Forth conference, spent much of Friday setting up computers for demonstrations, and didn't tell any of the rest of the staff that their PC's had arrived until next Monday! Mind you, Jean and I drove into Sydney on Sunday, and while she dropped off surplus furniture to Dave Stirrup, and picked up a laser printer for work, I spent the morning checking memory chips in all the XT's. Alfa had ran out of chips, and installed 100nS chips in several machines. I changed them to 150nS, reserving the nice fast 100nS memory for systems that needed it, like several of the staff AT's, including mine (at $25 each, it is worth doing a little work changing chips like that, rather than buying extra chips).

Meanwhile, back at the School, things changed abruptly. Our Associate Head of School, who did much of the day to day running of the place, is about to become Pro Vice Chancellor (or will by the time this zine is out), or effectively about third in the hierarchy that control the University. I have a feeling some other areas in the University are going to rapidly get much more efficient. Mind you, I have no idea now what changes are likely to happen in this particular School, but we will undoubtedly miss the administrative talent brought to bear in the past. In the short term, the School administration is hardly likely to be as effective as in the past, even if one only looked at man hours missing. There is also considerable doubt in my mind whether any of the other academics would actually want to take over the administrative tasks involved in running the School, even if they liked the idea of the changed status and position. In short, interesting times ahead, with the possibility of my work conditions changed.

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Computer Alert

Once again, Jean and I (well, mostly me) set out through the untracked wastes of the computer dealers, in search of yet another PC AT clone. As mentioned a few issues ago, Jean hadn't been making much use of the first PC AT clone I bought (not being home to do much work on it did contribute). I sold that first AT to Terry Frost, who uses it quite successfully to produce his fanzine. Meanwhile, I found a good deal on an Atari 1040 from a dealer friend, and had spent the money on that, and on riotous living (well, as mentioned two issues ago, I bought myself a rocking recliner chair, which I guess is a sign of old age!)

AT, Two Brutus!

Jean had been making extensive use of the AT at her place, but that was set up ready to use. With Leigh and Valma's room available following their move to Fremantle, she set to work repainting furniture, and arranging that room as her office at Faulconbridge. She then decided that she would now be able to use a computer at Faulconbridge. My part of the deal was to supply the computer. As you can imagine, I don't actually like the IBM line, but that is what we both use at work, and compatibility is more important than my design prejudices.

Ram-paging Prices

Unfortunately, since getting the previous computer, the price of memory chips (RAM) went through the roof, rising from $4 a chip to over $25 each; since you need 36 chips, that hurts. I decided to assemble an AT from existing boards, where possible. My decision was helped considerably by already owning a memory board that had 72 memory chips in it (albeit not as fast chips as I wanted.) I could remove the megabyte of memory I needed from that, instead of buying it immediately at ruinous cost.

The Bits

I already had a power supply and hard disk drive, but wanted them in the Atari, so I still had to get duplicates. I also already had a controller for hard disk and floppy disk, and a 1.2 megabyte floppy disk drive. One fine Thursday saw Jean and I struggling home with an Amber monitor, a keyboard, and a Hercules compatible graphics card. A week later, Jean helped me haul a large metal case, a power supply, a 42 megabyte hard disk, and a Unitron AT motherboard (no memory chips) to the train. I bought all this gear from Alfa Computers, in Regent Street, just across from where I work. I'd long ago persuaded this small family outfit to sell me gear at their dealer prices. I admit that I can get some stuff cheaper elsewhere, but going to a place just across the street from where you work is very convenient..

Soldering On

Exhausted by my efforts carrying all the gear home, I didn't try to assemble it until Friday, when Jean arrived home. This had the advantage that she saw how much work I put into doing all this stuff. Still, a little mechanical assembly is nowhere near as bad as having to solder up a whole computer, which Jean has helped me do ... mind you, she hasn't offered to solder a keyboard again ... not that any soldering is involved on ATs.

Casing the Joint

The case came with 4 stick on rubber feet, 7 plastic PCB stand offs, 8 plastic PCB card edge guides, 4 large hex head bolts, 4 small hex head bolts, 14 large Philips screws, 19 small Philips screws, 10 self tapping screws, 4 insulated washers, 2 plastic lead clips, 2 small hole end caps, 2 large hole end caps, 6 board hole stoppers, two keys for locking the keyboard, 1 loud speaker, with leads, 3 brass stand offs, 1 key switch, with leads, 3 LEDs, all different colours, with leads, 1 reset switch, with leads, one turbo switch, with leads, and no instructions. This seemed a fairly normal design, and no problems were apparent. Since that seemed unlikely, I anticipated trouble.

Easy Dos It

To my considerable surprise, everything went together with ease. No rough corners to ease with a file, no holes that didn't line up. The mounts for the disk drives were removable, and all the power and other connectors easy to locate. The manual for the mother board included a diagram of where the various jumpers were. All except two of the jumpers were already correct, and the computer powered up as soon as I'd added memory and a power supply. Everything was assembled during the evening. Even the Taiwanese manual was excellent (albeit not user friendly), and I only found one serious error in the manual, in the jumper selection for the memory locations.

A Testing Time

Testing was much easier than usual. I used my old controller and hard disk, which already contained a wide variety of programs. A few moments to alter the setup memory, and the system booted without errors. Then it was time to see what speed it could reach. The turbo button jumped it from 6 MHz to 10 MHz. With the 0 wait state jumper installed, that tested as the equivalent of 13 MHz. Unfortunately, it also failed after a few minutes. Well, since I was using slow 150nS memory, I hadn't really expected it to work at all at that speed. I removed the wait state jumper, to allow one wait state, and the main board ran reliably at 10 MHz 1 wait state. Unfortunately, the memory expander couldn't work reliably faster than 6 MHz. That will have to do, at least until memory prices drop again, and allow me to get the correct speed chips.

Serial Links; Breakfast of Champions?

Testing of the serial ports consisted, as usual, in me persuading my ancient 300 baud GE Terminet band printer to accept whatever the PC AT was giving out. I'm delighted to report that not many jumpers were required when I wired up the cable. Two way communication may be a different thing, but that was best tested with a modem.

I did have a couple of modems from a Grace Bros sale, so I built up serial cables, and tested them at work. One went to Jean's flat, one to Faulconbridge. They are only old 300 baud and 1200/75 baud gadgets, intended for the Commodore 64, using the 7910, first of the successful "one piece" modem chips. But they have CCITT V21 and V23 and Bell 103 and 202, originate and answer, and a relay for autoanswer. It looks like they have provision for autodialling, by pulsing a relay (assuming you fit one) using one of the computer control lines. Of course, they aren't Hayes compatible, so you wouldn't be able to use that feature from most US programs.

This didn't matter when we tested it on Saturday night, logging into the UTS computer system, and picking up a file of CSIRO Director jokes that Jean wanted. Considering how many untried things were involved (including the new modem at UTS), I was delighted with the results. I probably won't do it again, due to the phone bill ... but now I could do lots of my work from home.

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SciFi Notes

No attempt to work out which book is scifi, and which is sf this time. It probably doesn't make any difference, since my attitude remains firmly set in favour of pace, story, high tech, and realistic hard sf, and to hell with literary merit, linguistic gymnastics, and character development. "Help keep sf in the gutter, where it belongs!"

Empry by Michael P Kube-McDowell

Berkley, 0-425-09887-7, June 1987, 325 pages, US$3.50

Third in the Trigon Disunity, mentioned favourably in previous issues. Six hundred years in the future, and the sudden destruction of all known space faring human colonies, eons in the past, is now known to be caused by a hostile alien race. The human response is to arm for war. But against an unknown enemy, not even the most rash will rush into instant action. However, the politically ambitious may force a confrontation. Merritt Thackery, aged protagonist of the previous book, is the catalyst again, as the humans try to find a non suicidal resolution to the problem of an alien race who won't or can't communicate, but will destroy the home world of anyone who approaches their worlds.

Count Zero by William Gibson

Ace, 0-441-11773-2, April 1987, 246 pages, US$2.95

Another computer cowboys* story, peopled by slightly more naive characters than in Neuromancer, by an acknowledged master of cyberpunk. Despite Gibson's acclaim, I find him distinctly less readable, and a lot less knowledgable, than Walter Jon Williams. However, there aren't a lot of people doing this sort of blend of fast moving, scene hopping, high tech, violence, and adventure. Gibson's efforts are always worth watching for, even while you look for little flaws. (*OK, who out there has dealt with Computer Cowboys?)

The Island Worlds by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts

Baen, 0-671-65648-1, June 1987, 279 pages, US$2.95

Hard sf set in the next century, when the asteroids are about the only area not totally controlled by a declining Earth empire. To some extent a recreation of every old "competitive colony yearns to be free of the Fatherland" story. The protagonist, as usual, is a well educated malcontent from a well off family, and some of his past connections help make the story. Nice pro-space twist at the end, even if credulity is stretched a mite.

The Bones of God by Stephen Leigh

Avon, 0-380-89961-2, Nov 1986, 289 pages, US$3.50

A low key, carefully plotted story that successfully blends sf and mysticism with real, albeit obsessive, characters. Not the sort of thing to precis, but well worth re-reading. My major problem is that I don't like even the concept of religious fanaticism, regardless of how well it is presented.

Cybernetic Samurai by Victor Milan

Ace, 0-441-13234-0, Dec 1986, 337 pages, US$3.50

Corporate Shoguns, in a future Japan, running high tech corporations by assassination, and commando raids. Not exactly realistic, but lots of action. The Cybernetic Samurai is a real AI personality, created by a woman US scientist. Tokugawa learns to become a real corporate samurai, and remains in memory as the equal of Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A really readable sideways recreation of a classic piece of sf, with absolutely no chance of being taken as a mere rewrite.

The Net by Loren MacGregor

Ace Special, 0-441-56941-2, June 1987, 225 pages, US$2.95

Two rich, respectable, but criminal, rivals in a game of stealing. There is a communications Net, telepaths, and lots of scifi ingredients, but somehow the story ended up seeming more like a children's story.

Antares Dawn by Michael McCollum

Ballantine, 345-32313-0, August 1986, 310 pages, US$2.95, A$6.50

There are a nice handful of hard sf writers turning up, doing splendidly realistic stories once every few years. Michael McCollum went straight onto my must buy list with Life Probe, and it's sequel. Antares Dawn postulates a human colony in the 26th century, cut off from the rest of humanity by the collapse of the only hyperspace foldspace that leads there. The colony continues to expand, however when an enormous Earth battleship enters the system in the 27th century, there is a pressing need to discover what is happening in the rest of human space. Especially when the battleship obviously has sufficient power to destroy their entire navy ... but is the loser of some unknown battle. McCollum also produces believable, active and competent characters, who fit well with my perception of how sf should be done.

Second Genesis by Donald Moffitt

Ballantine, 345-33804-9, Dec 1986, 329 pages, US$3.50

Sequel to The Genesis Quest, with the humans, created from genetic information beamed from the Milky Way system, leaving their creators, the Nar. But to find their home planet, the humans must first become immortal, to somehow extend the Nar spaceship far beyond its limits. A sentimental journey, and despite the wild speculation, a touching story of aliens who care, and humans who are indeed different. The final bonus is the story of what happens to the Original Humans. I've had Moffitt on my must read list since The Jupiter Theft.

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Letters of Comment

Brian Earl Brown

11675 Beaconsfield, Detroit, MI 48224 USA 14 April 1988

Speaking of "heterocentennial crap", certain gay organisations have taken offence at Kellogg's commercials for Nut'N'Honey cereal. The commercials play on the product's pronunciation as "nothing, Honey" - scenes includes at a boot camp, at a cattle drive, etc. Scripts read "Cookie, what's for breakfast?" "Nothing, Honey." Everybody draws guns. This, the gay organisation says, belittles homosexual relations. Funny, I thought it played on the straight communities homophobia.

I pretty much agree with your distinction between scifi and SF, tho I'm appalled that you can read Mission Earth. I've read a couple of pages of Battlefield Earth and concluded that Hubbard had forgotten everything he knew about writing.

Across the Sea of Stars was pretty good science fiction, even if Benford does ruin Earth again. For a forward facing, future thinking kind of guy, he doesn't come across as very optimistic about the future...

Heart of the Comet was marginally more optimistic only because Brin is marginally more optimistic than Benford. (Brin's Uplift Universe is pretty grim when you think about it. Everyone seems out to rip-off anyone else that they can.) When it was more eventful, melodramatic and space operaish, I was bothered by the number of deus ex machina solutions to the hopeless problems presented in the first half. These solutions were needed so that there could be a second half to the book, but it could have been made a little less obvious.

Peter Edick

... nster Ave #201, ...ach CA 90291.

I'm still looking for Peter Edick's address. He sent a Xmas Card, but the address on the envelope was water damaged. All I can make out is as above

When are you coming over again? I'm engaged to be married again. And the place I'm living in is less than a mile down the beach from that restaurant {{ Dah Maghreb }} we had dinner in several years ago.

Larry Dunning

Phoned in a PoC from WA. I hope it wasn't on his phone bill. He says he is joining the ranks of IBM clone owners.

Meredyth Carter

Sends a wedding invitation, to her wedding with Matthew Campbell, on 14th May. {{ Congratulations, and all the best wishes. }}

Chuck Harris

Sends a postcard from Barbados, with a recipe for rum punch, and tell us rum is "disgustingly cheap". The recipe goes 1 part fresh green lime juice, 2 parts sugar syrup, 3 parts rum, 4 parts crushed ice. {{ I'll try it this evening!}}

Michelle Hallett

GPO Box 1808, Sydney NSW 2001

"(L Ron Hubbard's books) do appear to appeal to new readers, who may otherwise be spending their beer money on snuff movies and video clips. This is probably a Good Thing. Without a new audience ..." Eric, have you thought the implications of this out, do we really want people who watch snuff movies at SF conventions? I mean snuff movies involve killing actors without the actors consent, from which comes the whole pleasure of the movie. Makes bondage between consenting partners that everyone's so screwy about lately seem paradisiacal.

{{ OK, I do exaggerate somewhat, for effect. However, it is my impression that sf (as distinct from horror and fantasy) readership and interest is on a decline. It is also my impression that sf fandom, in the sense of readers of sf, is likewise in decline. I see sf as a literature of hope and of exploration, more than just escapism, and so I want to see it expand. I also want to see sf enthusiasts expand (other than by overeating ... this comment invoked by the prospect of Jean and I tucking into pancakes with Real Canadian Maple Syrup in a few moments). For sf enthusiasts to expand demands that we, as fans, try to find a new audience, and introduce that audience to those aspects of the literature that delighted us at their age. EL}}

Yvonne Rousseau

PO Box 483, Norwood, SA 5067

Here is a change of address, since Saint Valentine's Eve.

Thus you perceive that Kinkon 3 was visited - unbeknownst to you - by South Australians; in fact, not only by me but by Dianne De Bellis and her son as well. Win a South Australian, lose a Queenslander, however; Tim Reddan has gone Victorian.

{{ It is still far too hard to keep track of all the CoAs. Luckily Jean takes care of most of that for us both, and she is far more efficient at doing so than I ever was.}}

Robert Coulson

2677W-500N, Hartford City, IN 47348 USA

I did indeed find the the Australian version of the Bicentennial stamp, but I was more fascinated by the "Living Together: Transport" stamp with it. Also appalled; I thought Australia was the land of the outback and the wide open spaces ... I trust it's not quite that crowded where you are ...

Considering my opinion of Hubbard's last writing and Scientology, I should have turned down any invitation to help launch Death Quest. Whether I would have or not is something else again; free meals of any sort have a certain appeal. (Though I can't say that the one champagne breakfast I attended, in Indianapolis, was any marvel of a meal. Since the deCamps also attended, it was worthwhile, though.) I notice that the local library, which is rather a small one, has purchased all the "Mission Earth" series. I grimace at them whenever I notice them, and I'm sometimes joined in grimacing by the librarian who is a fringe-fan. But they do seem to be popular.

It does seem a shame that Hubbard, who wrote some excellent and enjoyable science fiction, should be known to the general public for Battlefield Earth and this series, though. But then, Heinlein is probably known to the general public for I Will Fear No Evil and Job ...

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