Web Informant #95, 6 December 1997
A letter from Australia


Imagine using your computer in the most hostile of conditions: a place that has intermittent power, high humidity and temperature. The place is so remote that mail service is limited to twice a week, and express package delivery is even rarer. Spare parts are hard to come by, and when you do find them they cost three to four times what you pay elsewhere. While you work on your computer, you are surrounded by a wide variety of crawling insects, some of whom are moving in and out of your keyboard, disk drive and other orifices and surfaces at will while you try to concentrate on work. Finally, your computer is shared with an ever-changing cast of chartacters who may or may not know what they are doing. Sound like fun? Well, that's how I spent my winter vacation.

I had an opportunity to speak at the Sydney (Australia) Interop show last month, and decided to take some time off touring the Great Barrier Reef and northern Queensland, the state that is closest to the reef. In the process of doing research for the trip (over the Internet, of course), I hooked up with Hugh Spencer (hugh@austrop.org.au), director of a science research station at Cape Tribulation. Cape Trib is in the middle of a rainforest and basically at the end of the road.

The scene above is a fairly accurate description of the place. We had three aging laptops (desktops draw too much power -- the place operates on a hybrid solar power system since the nearest municipal power grid is miles away): a PowerBook 100, another PowerBook 520, and a 486 Toshiba running Windows 3.11. Ironically, the PB100 was the most reliable machine: with only 4 megabytes of RAM, we had to force some software to run on it but otherwise it functioned just fine. Indeed, I began writing this column on it.

I came up to Cape Trib to help upgrade and improve the operations of these computers, and found it both a real challenge but also very rewarding. The hard part was dealing with the limited resources: just about everthing that I take for granted back home wasn't so easy. Take Internet access as an example. Yes, we had modems and could dial-up our Internet access. But the cost of the long distance call to the nearest ISP wasn't cheap.

Besides, trying to download any software of significant size during the work day was an exercise in patience: one 3 meg file took about an hour! When I did traces, the packet delays getting from our ISP to Sydney were on the order of seconds. Indeed, it took longer to get packets from where we were in the far north to Sydney then to get them across the entire Pacific and to various destinations in the States!

Then there was the series of Word macro viruses that stumped me for a while, until I got a suggestion from a friend. That took a day to completely eradicate, complete with a stop at McAfee's web site to download its virus-checking software. And a flaky PB hinge took another day's roundtrip to the nearest repair shop (a three-hour drive each way, complete with a ferry connection).

It really was battle conditions. At one point, after some insect had just crawled out of the keyboard while I was typing, I tried to remind myself exactly why I was doing this. Yes, it was a sort of busman's holiday, but the folks at this far-flung research station needed all the help they could get. Unlike some other establishments that are funded by goverments or universities, this outfit really operates on a shoestring. (Interested in donating something? Drop Hugh a note.)

I got some solid support from people in the States: the Global Village tech support staff, for example, answered our query via email within a few hours, and we were up and running with one of the PowerBooks.

All in all, the trip to Cape Trib made me appreciate what we've got here in the States: when I need a spare part or some equipment, it takes hours or days to get it, rather than weeks. And I can do my work in relative bug-free comfort, at least free from the kind that crawl over me.

David Strom
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