Adrian and e-commerce: understand the technology, then develop the policies

I wrote this article for Lawyer’s Weekly magazine some years ago. It’s presented here for its historical interest, in particular how prescient are interview subject Adrian McCullagh’s predictions regarding the future of e-commerce viewed in the cool light of hindsight.

As national director of e-commerce for Gadens Lawyers, Adrian McCullagh has played a prominent role in developing Australia’s e-commerce legislation. He was a member of the Federal Attorney General’s Electronic Commerce Group which reported on the proposed e-commerce framework for the Australian business sector, was also involved in the National Public Key Infrastructure Working Group and currently serves on the Standards Australia Technical Committee IT 12/4/1, which develops national technical standards for e-commerce practice and implementation. In short, if it’s to do with law and e-commerce, McCullagh’s your man.

Adrian’s work embraces not only implementation of effective e-commerce strategies for national and international business but also advising industry groups and business sectors on e-commerce and related IT issues. Laywers Weekly caught up with him at the Gadens Brisbane offices for an insight into how a former computer science student became an e-commerce law specialist and the importance of online business in today’s rapidly evolving e-marketplace.

From programmer to lawyer

It is perhaps not surprising that Adrian initially chose computers as a career focus, given that his family had a strong IT background; his uncle introduced one of the very first mainframe computers into Australia, for the Commonwealth Government treasury back in the late 1950s.

“My uncle worked for ICT – later to become ICL – out of England. Once, when I was still growing up, I was tossing up what I should do for a living and my uncle said, ‘You’ve got to get into computers’! Adrian explains. “This was back in 1972 or 73. So I did a computer science degree at the then Queensland Institute of Technology and did my project on artificial intelligence – I wrote a backgammon game where you played backgammon with a computer.

“It was pretty rudimentary, a fairly naïve approach – it was a ‘probabilistic’ approach, not the ‘decision-tree’ approach that is being used now. I then worked for the Queensland University as a systems programmer at the medical school and I was also a medical statistician at one time, working in medical epidemiology. The Medical School was negotiating a contract for a new system and I was assisting. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the attorneys we were using. I actually lost a bit of confidence in them because they were asking the most rudimentary questions about the technology and I realised I knew more about it than they did. So this led me to thinking that maybe there would be an opening in the world for an IT lawyer, which back in 1981 was a fairly unusual proposition.”

Adrian quit his job and went back to QUT, supporting himself by part-time lecturing and tutoring in computer science while studying full-time law. He remembers the time fondly: “It was quite an interesting concept, because I would be in the situation of administering an exam as a lecturer and then I would have to rush off and sit for one as a student!”

Four years later, armed with an honours degree in law, Adrian commenced his articles at what is now Corrs Chambers Westgarths. After a few years he moved to a small law firm and later became a partner, “but that didn’t quite work out so eight years ago I came to Gadens.”

At Gadens he started as a senior associate. “Four years ago, long before e-commerce really took off, I commenced the very first PhD in e-commerce issues in law in Australia and one of the first in the world.” The emphasis of the work deals with the incorporation of trust strategies in digital signature regimes for e-commerce.

“What this translates to in simpler terms,” he explains, “is that my research is looking at what we mean by trust. It may be only a five-letter word but it’s actually a very complex concept, in that it involves legal, sociological and technological issues.

“What do we mean by trust from these perspectives – especially considering that certain cultures are more trusting than others? Where does the law fit to support the e-commerce framework, which itself is going to build upon social trust and technological trust?”

In his research, Adrian has looked at the European directive on digital signatures, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysian digital-signature law, the UK Electronic Communications Act and the various electronic/digital signature Acts in North America, trying to work out what is meant by trust in this complex legal context.

“There is a myriad of approaches to dealing with digital/e-signatures, and these are really going to underpin the entire methodology of doing business in the future,” he explains. “Have the legislators understood the nature of trust, and if so, how have they incorporated those trust strategies into the legislation? That’s the basis of my thesis.”

Understanding the technological limitations

Adrian’s IT background formed the impetus for his appointment as national director of e-commerce for Gadens, which he describes as “a natural progression, really. I had the background and the honours law degree, and because I was doing the PhD I had done all this research and writing on the subject anyway, so when Gadens were looking around for someone to fill the position, they said ‘you’re it!’” Another important position Adrian holds is his role as the sole lawyer on the Standards Australia Technical Committee IT 12/4/1. “The committee is developing technical standards for public key infrastructure,” he explains. “Basically we’re concerned about the infrastructure upon which digital signatures are going to be very much dependent. What the standards deal with are what types of algorithms will be acceptable, what types of certificates will be required, the registration procedures and certification that authorities need to comply with. Really it’s setting the technological framework for public key infrastructure so we can implement digital-signature mechanisms. I’ve been involved in that for three years.”

Returning to the subject of his PhD, Adrian emphasises that the marriage between technology and law is an effort on his part to show where the two disciplines intersect and are interdependent.

“What I’m really trying to show is that in order to understand where the law fits into e-commerce, you need to understand the limitations of the technology. Then you can develop appropriate policies to support where it doesn’t cover these or at least take a procedural approach so you can be aware of the limitations; this should be the role of government, in that one of government’s regulatory analysis roles is to support commerce and society in understanding what the procedures are, what the limitations, are conducting risk analyses and so on.”

Double difficulty for government regulation

Adrian emphasises that conducting this research has led to a continual development in his approach to the issues.

“When I started the PhD it was more of an information gathering exercise, but I think now as I’ve developed greater skills through doing the research it’s become more trying to determine, through talking to the techno people, exactly where the technological and legal limitations are. We need to determine where the law should step in and conversely where it should step out.”

He points out that in this regard, self-regulatory mechanisms are very important – and sees a two-fold difficulty for the government.

“The first difficulty is that governments by their sheer nature are not in a position to react quickly. This is because governments do not alone make laws – parliament makes laws. And in parliament you of necessity have a government and an opposition and before you can pass laws you need to conduct a lot of debate. And some laws become very contentious – for example, those concerning content regulation of the internet. This has taken a lot of to-ing and fro-ing regarding what the final shape of the law is going to be. In this regard the workings of the Internet Industry Association of Australia and its executive director Peter Coroneos have been absolutely tremendous in being able to move the agenda along a very rational approach.”

Adrian says one of the new regulatory approaches starting to be adopted by government is the establishment of commissions of authority such as the ACCC, ASIC and APRA. This approach is not unique to Australia but is being used in many jurisdictions so as to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of society and commerce.

“A commission of authority will regulate and propagate rules associated with that particular industry or issue and, unlike government, these groups can react very quickly. That’s firstly because they’re less bogged down in bureaucracy (although some would disagree!) and secondly because, usually when they go into research or investigation of a particular area they can hire experts in that fields so as to get a better understanding of the emerging industry or approach.

“Therefore they can be not necessarily proactive but at least less reactive, because they can react quickly. A clear example is the role of ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission). They dealt with the continued use of putting prospectuses on the internet by releasing policy statements on the subject. Now, there were no specific laws regarding this, and if parliament had had to deal with it there would have been a great time lag, but ASIC by its nature as commission of authority was able to introduce policy statement 107 and other mechanisms to regulate the publishing of prospectuses in a far quicker time frame.”

And the second difficulty with governments? Adrian explains: “Most do not have close associations with other governments across the world because of their limited time frame – they get voted in, get voted out, and can’t really build up relationships because that takes time. The commissions on the other hand, once established, are much more permanent and can therefore build long-term relationships with other authorities in other jurisdictions.

“The whole framework of dealing with e-commerce is such that down the line I would not be surprised either if one of the regulatory authorities is given the role of regulating e-commerce or it becomes such a pervasive form of doing business that the government actually sets up an e-commerce commission.”

Importance of government lobbying

“The difficulty of e-commerce is that it actually transgresses multiple regulatory authorities,” Adrian adds. “If you are dealing with electronic cash or payments systems, for example, you fall within the regulatory ambit of the Reserve Bank because they have control of the Payment Systems Regulations Act. If you’re dealing with prudential aspects, life insurance, etc you fall within APRA’s ambit. If you’re dealing with consumer issues you fall within the ACCC. How you balance whether one authority should have full control over it or not is something which really the government has yet to address. You might get certain situations arising whereby an event covers both organisations, in which case you would have two regulatory authorities investigating the same event which would obviously be a waste of resources. So you have to find the balance.”

Adrian points out that in this regard the role of the IIA and similar organisations is very important. As he explains, “Since around the early 1990s, political parties in this country have not developed their policies internally – unfortunately in Australia I don’t know of any departments of government at universities that have investigated this trend or done any in-depth research in this area. But in the US, university research has been done and it’s been noted that up till the mid 1970s, political parties used to develop their own policies internally. From the 1970s on there was the rise of lobby groups and they would develop particular agendas, present them to governments and try to persuade them to say ‘this is the way we think it should roll out’. Then the political parties would do their own private polling to identify whether the political environment was for or against this particular issue. This is now occurring in Australia. The role of the IIA and other organisations is very influential in providing guidance for government to say this is the way it should go. Some of the larger banking and mining organisations have been using this mechanism as a form of lobbying advancement for some time.”

Influence of the internet

Like many in the legal profession, Adrian’s way of conducting business has been dramatically influenced by the rise of the internet. In fact, in his position as an e-commerce lawyer, the medium determines the whole nature of his work. As he puts it: “If I was, say, a construction lawyer, I would mainly be concerned with the issues here in Queensland from the point of view of how they affect my clients and my business. But being an e-commerce attorney I have to be aware of what’s occurring in Europe, Southeast Asia and the US – a clear example of this is that I actually start work at 5.30 every morning because I liaise with lawyers in New York, LA, Chicago, London, Brussels and Southeast Asia. In order to make sure we can make the same timeframes, you need to be flexible in this regard. You need to be aware of what’s occurring throughout the world.”

“Recently a French court has said to a very large portal that they are breaching French law because they are promoting the sale of Nazi paraphernalia. This raises all kinds of cross-jurisdictional issues. Where is it going to end? It raises the issue of what impact the laws have on my clients who are promoting goods from Australia. Are they in actual fact offending any other jurisdictions’ laws, and how do we structure their websites to minimise liability? You need to now cast your net far wider. I in fact need to know, at least in part, French law.

“In the final analysis, the internet is forcing us not necessarily to get law degrees for other jurisdictions but at least to be aware of the issues associated with those jurisdictions. It creates a greater burden upon lawyers.”

The e-business future

Perhaps the web-like cross-jurisdictional paths of the e-business world could be eliminated by worldwide unity, like the one-world-governments favoured in utopian novels. Adrian shrugs this off as unlikely, but comments, “Well, then again, who would have thought that the European Commission would become the European Community would become the European Parliament, and who could have foreseen the creation of the single currency Euro?

“What I do think is that the US dollar will survive, the Euro will survive and there may be one or two others.

“Depending on how influential China becomes in Southeast Asia, the Chinese currency will be the third, and I also think there will be a universal currency which will be some sort of e-payment mechanism. In choosing the Chinese currency I am not necessarily discounting either the Indian rupee or the Russian ruble, but their economies I think are not strong enough to withstand the power of those other three currencies. So I don’t think the Aussie dollar will survive … I think we will actually become a US dollar country … so there will be a great currency change.

“As for laws, I think you will find that there will be a greater emphasis (and we’re seeing this now) on the UN to produce more uniform laws such that countries can pick them up more easily and so that there is a uniform approach across many jurisdictions. That is certainly the position with laws on e-commerce, the UNCITRAL (UN-based) position on e-commerce. The UN involvement in international trade laws will increase and its role will be to make sure there’s uniformity.”

Peacelord of the Universe: Perry Rhodan in English

This article originally appeared in Van Helsing’s Journal, an American horror/fantasy magazine.

How the unlikely combination of a German SF pulp and a larger-than-life English language editor spawned a US paperback success that endured for almost a decade.

If you suffered from insomnia during the 1960s or 1970s, or if you were just a fan of the late night TV programming of the era, there’s a good chance you may have stumbled across a B-grade, Italian-produced German science fiction film notable for its appalling English dub and titled Mission Stardust. This 1965 movie told the story of American astronaut Perry Rhodan, the first man on the moon, and how he found a crashed alien spaceship there and befriended its crew.

The unremarkable film (SOS aus dem Weltraum in the original German) has low production values, attractive leads (Lang Jeffries as Rhodan and Essy Persson as Thora) and a catchy theme song typical of the era. But while the movie is for the most part forgotten, the series of novels upon which it was based is still very much alive in Germany and – surprisingly enough, given the reticence of English language publishers to release translations of foreign SF – enjoyed a remarkable paperback run in the US for almost 10 years with a circulation peaking at 50,000.

Perry Rhodan is somewhat of a German publishing phenomenon and has been so for more than 40 years. It has been published each and every week since September 1961 as a ‘heft’, a digest pulp magazine format still commonplace in Germany. At time of writing the current issue is #2210 which makes Rhodan unquestionably the world’s longest running SF series in any media (the lead characters all received the gift of immortal life early in the run thus allowing the storylines to span thousands of years). None of the original corps of four writers are still contributing, however – in fact only one, series co-creator Walter Ernsting, remains alive.

That Rhodan came to be published in English at all is due to Ernsting’s recognition of its potential in that market and his friendship with the man who was to become the series’ ‘English language representative’ and managing editor during its 1969-1978 English run. Forrest J Ackerman was still an active contributor to SF fandom rather than prodom back in the 1950s when he helped found the Science Fiction Club Deutschland alongside Ernsting, then still trying to break into the German market as an author. Because the only SF being published in Germany in the fifties came from American and British writers, Ernsting wrote his first novel under the American-sounding pseudonym ‘Clark Darlton’ and pretended he had merely translated it from English; consequently he was saddled with the pen name throughout the rest of his career.

In 1965 Ackerman and his German-born wife Wendayne met Ernsting in person for the first time at a book fair in Europe and spent a few days as his houseguests. During their visit Ernsting made Forry a present of a complete set of the Perry Rhodan series he had created in 1961 with noted German author KH Scheer (Ernsting was responsible for the name, supposedly from a combination of Perry Mason and Japanese movie monster Rodan, ‘Americanized’ with the addition of the H). He also suggested that Ackerman could introduce Rhodan to the US market and, in a famously oft-to-be-repeated quote, that “Wendy could translate it in her spare time”. By 1975, when the series was appearing in English three times a month, Wendy was perhaps wondering what she had let herself in for.

Though concerned about the difficulties of selling a US publisher on the concept, Forry agreed to give it a try, and soon after was doing the rounds of the major US publishing houses attempting to interest them in Wendy’s translation of the first issue. Some considered the series juvenile, others thought it too ‘European’; finally Don Wollheim, then an editor at Ace Publishing Co, agreed to try it out in 1969.

One of the obvious difficulties in marketing Rhodan in English was the relatively low word count of each story: around 30,000-35,000 words, fine for a weekly 64 page digest pulp, but in paperback this came to between 90-100 pages, hardly sufficient to expect a reader to shell out a hard-earned 75c for. Ace intially combated the problem by publishing two stories in each paperback, but by the sixth issue, editor Ackerman solved the problem by introducing a new format: the ‘magabook’.

The idea was simple but had never been tried before: all the features of a pulp magazine format within the pages of a book. Forry had grown up with the classic SF pulps like Astounding and Amazing and saw the classic space opera feel of Rhodan as an opportunity to educate a new generation of young readers in the wonders of what he called ‘golden age’ sci-fi. He introduced short stories, editorials, a serialized ‘classic’ story, letters column (the Perryscope!) and eventually even subscriptions which were administered by Wendy from their home. By issue #17, each paperback was running between 160-180 pages and later in the run some spanned more than 200.

In keeping with the naïve, early sixties ‘boy’s adventure’ pulpiness of the writing – space opera fare owing much to Doc Smith’s Lensman series, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and some of the Hollywood sci-fi movies of the 1950s – the series was intially aimed at a pre-teenage male audience. Forry even deliberately modelled the editorial style on the old Captain Future pulps, giving full rein to his passion for punning and signing off editorials as “your hyper-pal, Forry Rhodan(!)”. However, once the letters started coming, Forry and Wendy realised they had misjudged the average age of the audience – there were many young adults, university students, and a large number of servicemen who were buying the series. Consequently the decision was made to reorient the series to a more mature presentation and style.

Ackerman had already made a name for himself as the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland (a publication he edited concurrently with the entire English language run of Rhodan) in which he strove to keep alive the names of actors like Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney Sr and educate the predominantly youthful readership about films made long before they were born. With Perry Rhodan, he had a chance to do the same for his first love, science fiction. He wrote copious editorials on SF’s history and origins, and men like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr; he introduced readers to ‘golden age’ writers like David Keller, Raymond A. Palmer, Eando Binder, Ralph Milne Farley, Otis Adelbert Kline and Stanton A. Coblentz; he serialized ‘lost’ classics like Pursuit to Mars (a sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds) by Garrett P. Serviss and Exile of the Skies by Richard Vaughan; dug out from his archives classic short stories like Spawn by P. Schuyler Miller, then book reviewer for Analog. And perhaps his crowning achievement with the series, certainly one of the revivals of which he was most proud, was the republication of a pioneering work, a round-robin SF serial called Cosmos which had originally appeared in a fanzine but which featured chapters by most of the leading SF writers of its time including Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, John Campbell and A. Merritt.

Professional reaction to the series was not good, with most of the reviewers in the field sniggering at its naivety and old-fashionedness, as well as the ‘pulpy’ writing which was often unfairly attributed to Wendayne’s (lack of) skill as translator (a comparison of the original German by anyone even mildly familiar with the language shows all the shortcomings clearly present in the original texts). One of the oddest criticisms, though, was that publication of Rhodan was taking away sales from ‘serious’ authors in the field, the readers’ minds presumably being filled instead with (as Forry memorably put it) “space opera dross”. This was particularly unfair insofar as Ackerman was using the series as a springboard to encourage readers to dip their toes into the ocean of ‘serious’ SF. He did this both through his own editorials (particularly memorable was his heartfelt obituary of John Campbell in #9) and through a series of guest editorials and coverage of conventions, films and other SF media. There was also a genuine effort to educate readers about wider concerns of science within our society: Ray Bradbury contributed an editorial in 1972 called ‘Apollo Murdered: The Sun Goes Out’ wherein he made a plea for funding not to be cut to the space program.

While Ackerman made no bones about the fact that he was not enamored of what was then called new wave SF, and that he saw Rhodan as an opportunity to republish the classics, he did not shy away from coverage of current authors. In fact, the magabook was renowned for giving new writers a chance at first professional publication: it was listed in writers’ guides as a paying market, submissions were encouraged, and even fans got their big break as short story writers within its pages. It must be admitted, however, that Ackerman did show a preference for stories which reflected his own puckish sense of humor: particularly memorable was Steven Utley’s story ‘Parrot Phrase’, in which a parrot looking out an apartment building window witnesses King Kong plummeting from atop the Empire State Building, after which he sagely observes “Pieces of ape, pieces of ape …”

Despite having to endure these occasional (arguable) lapses of taste, readers were treated to so much supplementary material each issue that many were moved to write to the letter column that the features were better than the Rhodan stories themselves!

Ace must have seen they had a success on their hands, for by 1972 publication was stepped up to monthly; by 1973 it was two a month, by 1975 the series briefly appeared three times a month until it was realized this was uneconomical and publication reverted to the previous rate. In Germany, overall sales of the series (which had by this stage run through four editions) had unsurprisingly surpassed the 100 million mark; in English, Rhodan boasted a circulation of 50,000 for the Ace editions. The presentation was complemented by eyecatching cover paintings by noted artist Gray Morrow, which curiously bore no resemblance whatsoever to events detailed in the stories inside, but Morrow’s work was so popular this didn’t seem to matter.

For the stories themselves, editor Ackerman rearranged the openings and conclusions, usually to ensure each episode started with a healthy dose of action and ended with a proper denouement, rather than the leisurely buildup and open-ended conclusion featured in many of the German issues. Occasionally it was necessary to change characters’ names (Fartuloon was wisely renamed Fratulon for the English audience) but for the most part the series remained intact. One of Forry’s major changes was to subtitle the series ‘PEACELORD of the Universe’ rather than the German ‘Inheritor of the Universe’ – it was the early 1970s, peace was in, Vietnam was out, and Forry was pushing peace in the pages of PR, rather at odds with the militant tone then prevalent in the stories (written, it must be remembered, during the early stages of the Cold War).

It was the very militancy of the series’ early episodes (Earth develops a large space fleet and goes to war against various nasty aliens whose motivations are never made particularly clear) that left it open to numerous allegations of fascism in the pages of European academic and SF publications; Rhodan himself was on one occasion described as ‘Hitler in Space’ by a European writer. This misnomer has stuck with the series down the decades, and a 2003 academic article by a British writer hyperlinked to the website of noted SF publication Locus attempted to make similar points, using the English-translated Ace editions as its basis. Ignoring the references in these stories to Rhodan being a democratically elected leader and the Terran World Government as composed of a parliament with democratically elected representatives, the same tired arguments were trotted out, and it’s a sad fact that Rhodan is seen as potentially fascist simply because it’s a German series. Much is made out of Rhodan’s calling the neutral power bloc he founds ‘The Third Power’ (the US and the Soviets being the other two). This is usually seen as a deliberate parallel to Hitler’s Third Reich, which shows nothing more than the critic’s ignorance. In fact the term ‘Third Power’ was supposed to signify a ‘third way’ political philosophy – a commonplace term in acadamia and political writings in the early sixties when the series was started, referring to the ‘centrist’ political perspective which seeks to create a synthesis of market liberalism and democratic socialism. Nothing at all to do with German ‘reich’ (realm) and a term well understood by the writers and European readers of the period (and obviously enough, any attempt by Rhodan to establish a new realm would have been a ‘fourth’ reich not a third). Perhaps recognising the potential for misinterpretation, Ackerman soon modified the English equivalent to ‘the New Power’, but by this stage, some damage had already been done.

Misunderstandings aside, peace was pushed in the pages of PR; as were other editorial messages. Ackerman was passionately anti-smoking: when he found the publishers were inserting fullpage colour ads for cigarettes in some early issues (a commonplace practice in paperback publishing of the period) he retaliated by writing in lines for the characters such as the following: “I’d glady give you a whole carton [of cigarettes]  … it’s fine by me if a traitor to Terra wants to ride the cancer express to his own funeral”.

One of the most notable examples of this effort to communicate issues of importance appeared in #88, in which Ackerman reprinted (in full) ‘Stomp the Shadowman’, SF writer David Gerrold’s keynote speech to the audience of Westercon 75, which addressed the issues of stereotyping, putting celebrities on pedestals only to tear them down and making jokes at other peoples’ expense. A remarkable speech which deserved to be preserved for posterity, and which reached a potential readership of 50,000 thanks to the pages of Perry Rhodan.

As well as educating the readers, Forry was keen to encourage as many organised fan activities as possible. He knew this was the best way to ensure a dedicated following which would keep the series in print and himself and Wendy in their roles as editor and translator; and his own beginnings in SF fandom meant he knew exactly how to generate interest. Each new club in American ‘Rhofandom’ was publicised in the editorial and letters pages; regular lists of clubs sorted by state and region started to appear, and reviews of fan publications were featured in each issue. Finally, in 1975 the first US Rhodan convention was announced, scheduled for the following year in Washington DC! The guestlist naturally featured Walter Ernsting as well as William Voltz, at that time the head writer for the series, and ‘Kurt Mahr’ (real name Klaus Mahn), another of its writers who, though German-born, lived in Florida and worked for NASA as a physicist. These three were joined by AE Van Vogt, Gordon Dickson, Ben Bova, Ted White and Forry (Wendayne was at home suffering the after-effects of an impacted wisdom tooth) and the entire event was the subject of an editorial in #99, cheerily titled ‘Rhocon 1 was Fun!’ This tongue-in-cheek piece attributed to Seena and Nader Mason included such gems as “Clark Darlton was observed imbibing beer on 1 or 2 occasions (or 22) and … Rosmarie Ernsting has informed us that a slight mistake was made in translation: the planet Walter created is not Barkon but BEERCAN!” It also featured the following memorable description of the series’ managing editor: “Forry [was toastmaster] and began by apologising if he did an inept job because he said he had very little experience around kitchens and had never been able to master making toast. He warned the audience that the humor was not going to improve and they had better escape while there was still time, at which point 55 people left. This was very embarassing because there were only 50 there in the first place (the waiters joined them).” It was only many years later that Ackerman fessed up: Seena and Nader were two of his numerous pseudonyms.

Given all this activity, most readers may have thought the future of Rhodan in English was assured. But just about this time, the end was already in sight. Ace Books was bought out by Grosset & Dunlap and a new publisher and editor of the SF line came in, neither of whom cared for the series. While sales had been dropping, the main problem seems to have been that the series was considered too lowbrow, despite it having proven itself a very successful cash cow for Ace over the previous eight years. But the new management wanted to position the Ace imprint as a leading edge SF publisher for the coming 1980s, and Rhodan was very old-fashioned space opera.

The end ostensibly came in January 1978, just a year short of a decade since the first Ace edition was published. Forry and Wendy had known for some six months, as no new material had been requested and Ace was merely publishing everything left in the backlog; but still, the publisher steadfastly refused to officially inform Forry that the series would no longer be published.

But this was not quite the end. Wendy Ackerman had been running the subscription service for the paperbacks, sending out copies from home, the ‘Ackermansion’ in Hollywood. Readers would write letters, occasionally telephone and, if they were in the neighborhood, visit in person. Wendy had built up a strong rapport with the fans, encouraging them to try their own translations of German issues (which she supplied), advising on translation difficulties and so on. When it became obvious that Ace was no longer interested in publishing the series, Wendy took it upon herself to try to keep the ball rolling. For some time, SF author Stuart J. Byrne had been helping out with the translations; now he was to be responsible for the bulk of them, while Wendy coordinated the project and had the stories typeset and published herself in a cheap digest pulp format similar to the original German editions. These were made available by subscription only, but unfortunately only 5000 readers signed up – just ten per cent of the former readership.

As there was no money to pay him for his efforts, Forry relinquished editorship of the series to concentrate on Famous Monsters and paperback anthologies. He also relinquished the ten per cent commission to which he was entitled as the agent who had started the series’ English run; if he hadn’t, the cost of publication would have been too high. As it was, Wendy struggled valiantly on until 1979 – an additional 18 issues over those published by Ace – but then the axe fell. The German copyright holders had already had their fingers burnt when Ace cancelled the series without bothering to tell them; this non-communication had caused several months’ delay to Wendy’s efforts to bring the series back, during which time some readers cancelled subscriptions and others complained with nasty phone calls and reports to the Better Business Bureau. By the publication of issue 137, it was all over – the venture had proven too costly to turn a profit, and the Germans instructed the Ackermans to cancel the series.

Ironically, it was about this time that the series in Germany was reaching the peak of its popularity and the publishing milestone of its 1000th issue, which saw print in 1980. By the early 1980s the German publishers had five editions of Rhodan on sale each week, two weekly editions of the spin-off series Atlan, and three monthly editions of a supplemental paperback series: the dedicated German Rhofan could purchase a total of 31 different stories each month! The series itself had left its ‘boys’ own space opera’ origins far behind and become a cosmos-spanning saga of deeply philosophical implication: Rhodan had learned about the ‘onion skin’ evolutionary model by which individual races were evolving to become Superintelligences, Superintelligences were evolving to become either Matter Sources (positive) or Matter Sinks (negative) and these evolving in turn to become either Cosmocrats or Chaotarchs, the highest forms of evolution in the Multiverse. Rhodan was a member of the Knights of the Deep, an order formed to protect the extra-dimensional ‘skin’ beneath the structure of the Universe; he had been pre-destined for his role by a Superintelligence, millions of years before his birth. And he was struggling to find the answer to the third Ultimate Question: who initiated THE LAW and what does it accomplish? A far cry from the early days, and it’s a real shame that those critics who judged the series by its Ace run never got further than stories from 1963 and the English language Rhofans never got to read of the heights the series eventually scaled.

The latest postscript to the saga of English Rhofandom came in 1996, when an entrepreneurial fan, California-based John Foyt, persuaded the German publishers to let him revive the series from then-current German issue #1800 and begin a new English language run. Showcased at the 1997 World SF Convention, the first issue was dedicated to Wendayne (who had died in 1990) and featured an introduction from Forry. But this series lasted only four issues – apparently few readers remembered the 1970s paperbacks, and Foyt had published his new venture as magazines which were soon lost amid the newsstand display.

In Germany, the series has survived the tragic death of its highly-regarded head writer William Voltz in 1984 at the age of 46, the passing of its co-creator KH Scheer and the retirement of Walter Ernsting in 1991. It has celebrated its 2000th issue and its 40th anniversary and for the past several years there has been much talk of a TV miniseries pilot which is currently in the pre-production stages. Fans have been given sneak previews of computer generated aliens and spacecraft models for the series which is planned to be English dubbed and hopefully sold to the US – and there is speculation that all this may lead to an English language revival of the novels.

If it does come, will English readers remember it? The Ace Rhodan editions were distributed throughout the US, Canada, the UK and Australasia for almost 10 years. There was even a British edition of the Ace translations published by Futura from 1974 to 1978. Yet people have moved on and Rhodan has perhaps been forgotten. The whimper of its cancellation has left a bad memory for many; Forry is apparently reluctant to discuss the series (although he seems happy to autograph editions!) and Wendy is remembered not for her more than 100 Rhodan translations but simply as the late Mrs Ackerman and for her translations of Stanislaw Lem and her Famous Monsters article ‘Rocket to the Rue Morgue’. But there are those of us who still remember when the sci-fi section of the local bookshop contained a whole wall of Rhodans, when fans debated the covers, the storylines and the characters, when the critics carped and rolled their eyes despairingly at this old school space opera – a sure sign that it was not only being noticed, but bought by eager readers in the thousands.

Note: This article was originally written several years ago and has now been outdated by events. Walter Ernsting and Forry Ackerman are both no longer with us but Perry Rhodan continues unabated, having now passed issue #2700. You can see what he’s up to today at, but be warned, you’ll need to be able to read German!

Offshore market opportunities beckon for wastewater treatment

This article originally appeared in Process magazine which I edited for Reed Business Information

Aquatec-Maxcon is a successful Australian water treatment technology and equipment manufacturer which has grown form modest beginnings in a 90sqm terrace house in Sydney’s St Leonards. It is now a large operation with offices in North Ryde, NSW, a four hectare fabricating plant in Ipswich, Queensland, and an estimated 50 per cent of the Australian municipal wastewater treatment market.

Now supplying internationally through its 80 per cent share of Aquatec-Maxcon Indonesia, the company anticipates more than 30 per cent of its income will be coming from offshore markets within the next five years.

While Aquatec-Maxcon’s managing director and founder Tom Lawson is happy to provide an insight into the company’s success and its philosophy, he is also concerned about the future for water treatment manufacturers in Australia, particularly with regard to current State Government purchasing policies and the consequent inroads recently made by foreign owned companies into the Australian market.

“Our company has grown in two areas – the Sydney office started in 1981 as Aquatec Engineering and in 1985 I sold half of it to Maxwell Contracting, which was a Queensland-based company who had already been in the water/wastewater industry for more than 10 years.

“The marriage has been very fruitful as the skills of the two companies were highly complementary. Aquatec had specialised more in process engineering – we were small but focused – whereas Maxcon was more of a steelwork fabricator with designs for physical separation upstream and downstream of biological treatment processes. It was  reasonably substantial but had never done a lot of marketing, nor had much exposure to overseas technology.”

One of Aquatec’s big specialties had been aeration equipment for biological treatment of wastewater and this, explains Lawson, is still a mainstay of its business:

“The bottom line is to design aeration systems at lowest possible cost – not just the capital costs of putting them in, but also lifetime costs – more effective systems which deliver the same amount of oxygen but less electric power.

“I’m a frequent traveller so I know what technology’s coming out of Europe and that’s helped our ability to keep up with the latest systems. For example in 1986 we got the exclusive agency to market compressors and blowers manufactured by HV-Turbo A/S. They’re a Danish company and their advanced technology now delivers the highest efficiency available.”

Lawson says a number of very large aeration jobs came up once Maxcon was behind the company. It subsequently won small business awards, turnover increased and there has been an upward progression since. In 1992 the second half of Aquatec was sold to Maxcon. The new structure was headed by Aquatec Environmental Ltd, a holding company which owns 100 per cent of Aquatec Maxcon and 100 per cent of Maxcon Industries.

Five years after Lawson founded Aquatec, the company had moved from St Leonards to North Sydney where it started out with 140 square metres and expanded to 2000. In 1991 it moved again, this time to Roseville with 275sqm of office and another 275swm of warehouse, where it stayed for three and a half years. The present site in North Ryde has 700sqm of office and 700sqm of warehouse.

Lawson explains how the company’s Queensland fabrication plant is involved in product supply: “The realities of transport of big steel structures means Maxcon Industries in Queensland makes the gear if the job is local, while if it’s in Tasmania for example we get a local company to do the fabrication.”

There are more than 100 shareholders in Aquatec Environmental and the company is wholly Australian owned. Approximately 70 per cent is owned through an unlisted public company and 10 per cent through staff – “We encourage the staff ownership to the degree we can,” Lawson says.

For the last few years the group has turned over around $20m, around $9m of which has been generated from the Sydney office. The remainder is from Ipswich and is split approximately $6m from wastewater, $2m from potable water and the balance from steelwork fabrication, for example for power station development in Queensland.

“Because we have to tender for nearly everything our turnover often varies,” Lawson explains. “This year it’s been extremely successful. We expect more than $30m from group turnover and $15-16m of this from the Sydney office.”

Aquatec-Maxcon’s philosophy is to build up assets in Australia and as part of that policy both the Ipswich facilities and its Sydney office premises are wholly owned.

“We’ve attained a permanency here,” Lawson says, “and it’s big enough for our envisaged future expansion. The building cost around one and a half million to buy and Ipswich was four and a half. So now we have substantial Australian fixed assets. This helps to show clients we’re serious and here to stay and we’re substantial.”

Technological independence

The company is also spending on R&D in an effort to become less dependent on overseas technology.

“While to an extent we’re still dependent, we try to do as much over here as we can,” Lawson says. “For example while we’re still importing diffusers from Europe we already do part manufacture here. We also have the exclusive agency for HV-Turbo blowers which are from the biggest European supplier of this high rotational speed equipment. It makes little sense to attempt to build this high technology precision equipment in a market of Australia’s size.”

Lawson says the market for wastewater treatment is a strong one: “In any city you have industries producing wastewater and the authorities in charge of sewerage systems often insist on pre-treatment – certainly in Brisbane where we worked for Fosters’ Brewing about 18 months ago, building a $3m wastewater plant in Yattala. We’ve done the same thing for Cadbury’s in Tasmania and Mars in Ballarat. If you’re dealing with higher strength industrial wastewater it’s very difficult to get enough oxygen in so then you switch to anaerobic treatment which is really quite tricky technology because every wastewater is different … some are more responsive to biological treatment than others.”

In line with this Aquatec-Maxcon has recently acquired a US aerobic system called Air-O-2, though, Lawson says, “We would like to be as Australian as we can, doing R&D to maximise Australian content and to be less dependent on overseas technology, but without being stupid about it. We’re keeping our eyes on overseas and when we see something we can’t realistically do here then we use it.”

Market size and potential

“The wastewater industry is not necessarily as much a high growth market as some think it is,” Lawson stresses. “Australia is 18 1/2m people and the reality is that controlling pollution has been recognised as a priority over the last 20 years so billions have been spent on it already.

“Having said that, there is still money being spent on the highest standards of pollution removal. Also in wastewater and not being taken out is nitrogen and phosphorous and the Environmental Protection Authority, particularly in Queensland is making moves to remove these.

“Another area which has a lot of potential is upgrading of plants built more than 15 years ago. This could be a more than $50m pa market in terms of equipment.”

Another market the company has moved into is Indonesia, which despite its higher population is far behind us in pollution control, according to Lawson. “They haven’t yet got to the point of stopping pollution before it happens.

“At the moment they’ve only got 10% of what they need there in wastewater so over the next 10 years it’s a huge market that the Japanese and the Europeans are all beating a path to, and our choice is whether to carry on operating in our backyard or join the push.”

The Rules are There for a Reason

Something that bugs me: the way technology has turned everyone into self-styled experts, even those with no qualifications, no training, no skills and no aptitude for the very things they profess to be expert at.

Just one example: here’s a book review I just stumbled across on a blog, written by someone who professes to be an avid reader. The book under review is a favourite of mine. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or what’s it called, what matters is the quality of the review, an excerpt of which follows:

“all in all it was a decent story. i would suggest it to others and found that it was very enjoyable. The problem was the delay I experienced putting myself in the storyline. The clumsy (yet precise) speech and the conversations the characters had were the problem. The characters are all witty and seem to share constant inside jokes, without the courtesy of letting the reader in.”

As is (I hope) obvious, this person has no business writing book reviews, but here’s his blog up on the web, alongside god knows how many thousands of others, a morass of ill-conceived, incomprehensibly expressed, uninformed opinion in the name of free speech and the offensive, illogical, but somehow currently widespread idea that because everyone is entitled to hold an opinion, it follows that everyone’s opinions are of equal worth.

Back when I was a cadet journalist in the 1980s, desktop publishing had yet to take off. There were only two computers in the office, both brought in from home by the publisher. Our stories were typewritten, sent off to a typesetting service to arrive back on bromide sheets which were sprayed with adhesive, then cut up and stuck down on backing boards with headlines assembled independently and margin borders stuck down on transparent tape. It was a laborious process and one which required great attention to detail and care.

Then along came “DTP” applications and within a few years anyone who bought (or more commonly pirated) one could layout, even publish their own work. No need to know any of the rules of good typography, compositing, or layout. No need to know an emdash from an endash, a sans serif from a serif typeface – hell, all of a sudden there were no more typefaces, just “fonts” (a misuse which has stuck seemingly forever, thanks to the ubiquitous Microsoft Word). There were no more emdashes because the word  processing software couldn’t guess when one was required in the type. For a while, until Microsoft Word evolved a bit, there were not even any more “smart” quote marks (that’s the curly type, as opposed to the straight up and down ones). Because, just like those “self-playing” piano keyboards that are claimed to make a musician out of anyone, DTP was supposed to give a monkey (or at least a monkey who could operate a computer keyboard) the skills of a layout artist and professional typographer.

Needless to say, it didn’t work, and despite the advances in sophistication of the apps which have followed in the past quarter century, it STILL doesn’t work.

Instead we have seen a hideous dumbing down and knowledge loss, culminating in today’s internet era populated by who-knows-how-many websites out there wherein every rule of good layout, good design, good typography ever evolved has been trashed as if they never existed.

The same now appears set to follow for all the rules of good writing, grammar, journalism … thanks to the decline of newspapers and the rise of the blogosphere.

The funny thing about all this is that people still seem to intuitively recognise and respond to those websites with good quality layouts, those blogs with good writing and correct grammar. Even though they can’t tell you WHY they’re better, they can still recognise that they ARE.

All of which proves the truth of what I was told back as a cadet: the rules are there for a REASON.

And good writing, good layout, good typography is something that can’t be done well by dummies, not even dummies equipped with the very latest apps.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this in Microsoft Word and when I cut and pasted it into its original home in Facebook Notes, all of a sudden I had words running into each other at odd intervals … Facebook had simply taken out the empty spaces between my words at random. Point proven.

Suspended Coffee scheme allows your cafe to make a difference

Suspended Coffee is a philanthropic concept that started in Naples, Italy (as “Espresso Sospeso”) and is now a worldwide initiative. Simply put, it gives cafes and takeaway business serving coffee the opportunity to help those in need by offering them coffee and/or other foods like soup and sandwiches, which are funded by existing customers.

Here’s how it works: your customer comes in to buy a coffee (or soup, or sandwich, etc) – but they pay for two. The second coffee is “suspended” – you take the money, but keep the coffee until someone who can’t afford to buy one comes in to ask for a “suspended coffee”, or hands over a voucher from a community help organisation like the Salvos or Vinnies.

Suspended Coffee is taking off in foodservice businesses across the country thanks to Maureen Watts, who runs her own not-for-profit organisation and has a background in sales and marketing. “I heard about the concept a few years ago, then it hit social media earlier this year and I thought, why can’t I make this happen in Australia? So I set up the website ( and Facebook page and emailed out to a heap of coffee shops. Within six minutes I had my first response from a café saying we love it, what do we do?

“It grew organically – the Facebook page got a lot of likes, we’re up to 2,700 now. It’s taking off all over the world but Australia is really embracing it in a big way.

“I’m actually keeping it very simple – I’m just acting as the information conduit for cafes and community organisations who want to get involved. Groups like Vinnies and the Salvos and Red Cross are participating and I’ve also had smaller community groups approach me, asking can I help them out. Because there are a lot of people out there and how can we judge who is and who isn’t in need? I know of one lady who’s a single mum with seven kids, she hasn’t been able to put coffee on the grocery list for the last month – now thanks to Suspended Coffee, she can go into a coffee shop for ten or 15 minutes, have a break and put her feet up. So it’s not just people who might be homeless who are in need. I try to say to people, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about responding to somebody who needs kindness.”

Maureen describes the response from foodservice businesses and the general public alike as fantastic – “it’s really demonstrated to me there are people willing to make a difference. Cafes from all over the country have contacted me, people are asking how they can make it happen in their area. I’m sending out written proposals so people have something tangible they can present to their local coffee shop.

“There’s a real interest in getting involved – and not just from the traditional bricks and mortar businesses, but also mobile coffee vans, even a coffee distributor who wants to support this in the shops they supply has contacted me.”

Much of Maureen’s energies are taken up with promotional support – “we’ve got A4 flyers explaining the concept, we’re running the Facebook page and the website, and I’m currently trying to get a sponsor for instore window stickers. I’m keeping everyone up to date with what’s happening and we’re also using the Facebook page to link back to the Facebook pages of the participating cafes, which helps promote their businesses as well. And we’re compiling a list of all the establishments who are taking part, sorted by area.”

Currently there are participating businesses everywhere throughout Australia except for the Northern Territory and Maureen is hoping to have an NT café onboard soon. For those interested in getting involved, she recommends first visiting

“There’s a link on there to our Facebook page along with my contact details and a contact form. It’s a lot easier for people to contact me that way because then I have their email address and I can email them with all the information and keep them up to date. And of course I’m very happy to talk through the concept and answer any questions. The important point is it doesn’t cost anything to come on board and make a difference – in fact it’s very easy to do.”

Mr Moffat’s tenuous take on time travel

Despite having received high ratings and critical acclaim in the British media, this latest season of Doctor Who (the fifth since its 2005 revival) was a great disappointment to myself and many other fans who’ve been watching the program most of our lives.

The main problem: new head writer/executive producer Steven Moffat’s cavalier disregard for one of the program’s most important underpinnings – the “laws of time”.

There are two big potential problems when you’re writing about time travel. The first is the removal of jeopardy: a time-travelling protagonist can solve any problem by getting in his time machine, travelling into the past and changing it so the problem never arises. This has traditionally been addressed (as in HG Wells and others) by incapacitating either the time machine or the time traveller.

The second problem is the creation of paradoxes: every time the time traveller “crosses his own timestream”, ie travels into his personal past or future, he could conceivably meet himself. Do this enough times and there will be numerous different versions of himself all co-existing, able to advise and help each other. This in itself is paradoxical, but what’s even worse is that in time travel stories the protagonist sometimes escapes from an unescapable situation by having another version of himself travelling back in time from some future date to free him. But the future version of himself would never have been able to travel back in time to free him if he hadn’t been free in the first place. Hence the story’s internal consistency collapses in a heap, as does the suspension of disbelief.

Some daring science fiction writers have said “who cares about internal consistency” and proudly displayed their paradoxes for all to see. This may be OK for the pages of Astounding Stories but it’s not such a good idea for a regular weekly TV series like Doctor Who.

The creators of Doctor Who obviously understood the dangers of time travel and worked in a clever solution for the original series back in 1963: the Doctor had a time machine, but he couldn’t control it. Consequently he could never be sure of where it would take him, apart from the fact that it never took him where he had programmed it to. This meant the Doctor COULDN’T travel back in time to solve problems.

As the program progressed into the 1970s, the Doctor temporarily lost the use of his time machine. That didn’t stop the writers from using time travel stories in the program, and in 1972 the “Day of the Daleks” addressed time paradoxes with a silly story about terrorists travelling back from the future to assassinate a diplomat who they thought was responsible for creating the nightmare world in which they lived.

This story was notable for being the first Doctor Who to comment on the problems of time travelling. The Doctor’s companion quite correctly asked, if the terrorists fail to assassinate the diplomat on this attempt, what’s to stop them just time travelling back into the past and trying again and again until they get it right?

The Doctor said, “Ah, that’s the Blinovitch Limitation Effect,” but before he could explain further, the door opened and the terrorists burst in. So we never learned what the Blinovitch Limitation Effect actually was, but at least there was some explanation that ordinary humans couldn’t travel through time in the manner suggested – an effort to keep the storytelling internally consistent.

The next major step was the introduction of the Laws of Time upheld by the Doctor’s race the Time Lords. Again, we didn’t learn much about what they were, but at least there WERE Laws of Time which couldn’t be broken.

Again: it was all about the writers and producers trying to keep the stories consistent, have them make dramatic sense, and use time travel as a plot device to get the Doctor from point A to point B, without further intruding on the storytelling.

When the program was revived in 2005, the Time Lords were gone, leaving the Doctor as sole “guardian” of the Laws of Time. The storytelling made it very clear that this was a heavy burden: the Doctor could “see” which points in time had to remain fixed and which points were in flux. Again great importance was attached to the idea that certain things could not be altered by time travel: in particular, it was not possible for the Doctor to travel into the past to prevent the destruction of the Time Lords. This was a wise decision.

Now, with the current series just aired, the head writer and his team seemed to have scrapped all this groundwork. We have had an entire series showing the Doctor progressively becoming more and more cavalier about travelling backwards and forwards across his own personal timestream, regardless of all the storytelling problems it raises.

The culmination of this last series was a two episode story packed full of paradoxes and time travelling which saw characters freed from unescapable situations by future versions of characters who should not have been able to be there.

This was a huge mistake. The very structure of Doctor Who storytelling is threatened. Viewers will now surely ask, if the Doctor can do that in this story to escape, what’s to prevent him doing that in every story? And there goes jeopardy, and with it internal consistency.

The only thing the program can do now is the same thing it has done on a couple of past occasions when the production team made embarrassing blunders: simply ignore them.

As in season 25 when we suddenly learned the Doctor was apparently omnipotent and omniscient (another huge mistake in dramatic terms), or in the 1996 telemovie which told us he was half-human. The program has only survived in the wake of these undesirable revelations by pretending they never happened. Are we now going to have to pretend this with all of last season?