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Who's afraid of the big, bad computer?

Who's afraid of the big, bad computer? Believe it or not, this was the title of a seminar presented by the Toronto CSChE Local Section in March. The objective was to take a look under the hood to see what goes into a computer and how the various components work. The aspect that resulted in the most discussion was a 'new' marketing concept: the DIY (do-it-yourself) computer. When you purchase your system, you get the components and put them together yourself. You are not totally on your own: the manual is good and help is available. An 80386 system should take about an hour to put together, including assembly and formatting of the hard disk.

What's new about this? The first PCs, in the late 70s, were kits, only suited for the most advanced enthusiasts. Today's kits are complete systems for the most demanding professional applications. They are identical to the systems you see in offices, plants and laboratories except for the label.

Prior to the seminar, I visited Computer Advance Systems in Scarborough, Ont., to discuss the concept with Kevin Akvan. The equipment running in his showroom was impressive especially one system displaying a 'slide show' on a super VGA screen. Can people actually build their own 80386 systems with super VGA displays? The back room was a beehive of activity. I saw a very distinguished looking gentleman holding a screwdriver. From the expression on his face, he wasn't sure which end was for what. He also looked seared to death. An hour later he had a smile from ear to ear as he completed formatting his hard disk.

I decided to have a try, but as I already had a computer, I chose to upgrade instead of building a new one. It gets somewhat embarrassing to be a computer review editor and continue with my old XT. It has served me well for almost five years, but now it seems a bit slow. There is also the concern that some components are aging and sooner or later something is going to fail.

One Thursday evening just before the seminar, I packed up my old friend and drove over to CAS. They gave me some bench space and told me to get a screwdriver and take out the PCBs. (In computer language, PCB means Printed Circuit Board.) Five minutes later when I had the old boards out, I was handed a new motherboard and some memory chips. I loaded the chips into the board. Although the new board was about 30% smaller, the screw holes lined up exactly with the old board. While I had everything apart, I took this opportunity to substitute my second 5.25" drive with one of the newer 3.5" drives. I pulled out the 5.25" drive and slid the 3.5" drive into its place; a few screws held everything in place. A few minor wiring changes were required because of some differences in the connectors in a modern machine versus my antique. To finish the job, I then reinserted my pluging cards. Only the multi-I/O card had to be replaced with one designed for an AT; the others could be used in the new system. (Although the old XT disk controller card would have been adequate, I decided to switch to a 16-bit hard disk controller card.) This required a few extra minutes to reformat the hard disk. I didn't keep an accurate track of the time, but would guess this took about an hour. Now the moment of truth! Do I dare turn it on? No problem - it booted up and ran.

After a good night's work, I brought my fast friend home. The next day I started getting a diskette mismatch error when booting up. A few diagnostic tests determined the 5.25" drive was the problem. I lifted the hood and exchanged the one acting up with the one I had removed. That cleared up the problem. I knew that something was eventually going to go after almost five years, but didn't quite expect that to happen so soon after I got it in the door. The handling probably accelerated its demise. Much more important was the fact that I didn't bring the computer back for testing and repairs. I did it myself; I was no longer afraid of the big, bad computer.

Over the next few days, I made a lot of checks with respect to speed. With the exception of tasks requiring either reading of the floppy drives or intensive use of the printer, my ex-XT went 'like stink' compared to a few days earlier. Figure 1 [omitted] shows the screen from Norton Utilities SI (System information). For a true IBM XT operating at 4.77 Mhz all three values would be ones. The Landmark test indicated an effective speed of 16 MHz and about an order of magnitude faster than an XT.

This experience was valuable and should be considered for anyone starting to use computers. The training is worthwhile as is the cost. Although you build it yourself, you have help, follow-up support and a full warranty on the components. For the less technically inclined, they can be purchased and fully set up and running. You might enjoy watching it go together. I watched Sam and Karim, who had helped me during my project; they could put one together in 10 minutes. While there is a significant cost savings, perhaps the biggest advantage of this route is the breakdown of that dreaded computerphobia that prevents people from mastering them.

If you already have an XT, consider the upgrade to an AT. It is hard to quote a firm price since such a quote is somewhat dependent on the existing components and which plug-in cards are compatible with the new motherboard. Estimate a cost of $350-500. My system may look like an XT, but it's a Volkswagen with a V-8 under the hood'. Upgrading to a 80386 would have required more modification and I felt that I would rather start from scratch and get one of those new mini-tower cases. Watching others, I could see it was faster and simpler to start from scratch.

During a few visits to both organize the seminar and upgrade my system, I saw a number of people build their own. They covered the spectrum from accountants to engineers, teenagers to seniors and truckers to radio newscasters (in addition to this column, the concept was also featured on CBC radio). As more and more students use computers, a session could be planned where the evening's project is for the group to build their own. If you're not near Scarborough, a manual and videotape are available.

A New Lab at Western The Department of Chemistry at the University of Western Ontario recently opened a new lab intended to get students important environment-related skills. Called the Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, it is a joint venture between the university and Varian Canada Inc. The lab will be in operation by the start of the new school year.

Along with the new facilities, Western will be developing a new undergraduate programme in chemical analysis in the environment. According to G.M. Bancroft, FCIC (this year's winner of the Alcan Lecture Award), the analytical and environmental courses will get the best 'hands-n' training of its kind in Canada for undergraduates. It should provide the kind of graduates that industrial and government labs desperately need.

He stresses that graduates trained in the detection of environmentally-dangerous substances will be increasingly important to make sure that environmental pollution does not degrade the quality of life in Canada.

Martin Stillman, MCIC, will direct the new lab and, along with Jake Stothers, FCIC, and Ron Martin, MCIC, will reach third-year undergraduate courses in the new programme.

Western and Varian intend to maintain a long-term relationship that will included onsite technical seminars from Varian research staff and the sponsoring from an undergraduate scholarship programme for students in the analytical chemistry programme.

Accredited by NRC and SCC

Northern Telecom's Calibration and Metrology Department in Ottawa is the first organization in the country to be accredited by both the National Research Council (NRC) and the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). The programme, under which Northern Telecom was assessed, was established in 1988 by the NRC and the SCC to recognize excellence in labs that calibrate testing equipment. The intention of the programme is to provide Canadian industry with a national network of high-quality calibration services meeting standards set by the NRC which conform to international standards of measurement.

Assessment of the lab's technical performance was carried out by NRC experts. The administrative and financial examination was made by SCC.

The First in North America

A company based in Brantford, Ont., is the first recycling company in North America to install equipment to separate, clean and repelletize comingled plastic wastes.

Resource Plastics Corporation will initially have the capacity to recycle about 26-million pounds of plastic per year, including homogeneous and some co-mingled materials. The company can handle polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, ABS, PET and engineering resins. It can also handle the starch-filled plastic scrap from makers of diapers and garbage bags. The starch is added to the plastic to promote biodegradability but its presence causes considerable recycling problems.

Company president Jim Horn says the focus at the moment is recycling soiled industrial plastic waste which accounts for 85% of the plastic waste being landfilled. But Resource Plastics will not be ignoring post-consumer waste. Horn says his company will be testing 'blue box' waste and if it can be successfully separated, it can be recycled as well.

Killam Prizes Announced

On April 5, the Canada Council announced the winners of the 1990 Izaak Killam Memorial Prizes. They are J. William Costerton (microbiology) of Calgary, M. Daria Haust (pathology), of London, Ont., and Sidney van den Bergh (astronomy), of Victoria. The awards were presented at a ceremony in Toronto on April 19. John Polanyi, FCIC, gave the keynote address.

Costerton is professor of microbiology at the University of Calgary. His research on bacterial biofilms has important implications in science, medicine and engineering.

Haust, professor of pathology at the University of Western Ontario, has an international reputation for her medical research in atherosclerosis, perinatal pathology and inborn errors of metabolism.

Van den Bergh, a principal research officer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, of the National Research Council, has made contributions to the understanding of the evolution of the galaxies and the stellar operations within them.

Using Sound Waves to Weld Materials

The new process developed at the University of Toronto will weld most materials to almost any other. It uses ultrasound waves barely audible to the human ear.

According to Ray Woodhams, a professor in the university's Department of Chemical Engineering, tiny thermocouples are inserted in the welding area. These produce heating rates of 5,000 per second. The device can be used on ceramics, plastics, woods, fabrics and metals. One of the first things it will be adapted to handle is recycled materials. The materials being welded together do not have to be alike.

A 'tielayer' of adhesive film is put between the two materials being welded. The film is a polymer containing ultrasonic energy absorbers. It absorbs all the mechanical ultrasonic energy and converts it to heat, melting within a fraction of a second. The process is suitable for spot or seam welding says Woodhams.

Recycling CFCs

A Canadian research team has developed a system to trap and recycle coolants from refrigerators and air conditioners. The system, designed by Dusanka Filipovic and fellow scientists at Union Carbide Canada, can prevent chlorofluorocarbons from being vented into the atmosphere when repairs are being done to the machinery.

The device, a blue metal cylinder about the size of a large pop bottle, may be on the market in a year. Its development was the result of three years of work at Union Carbide's Linde Division in Toronto. The 'blue bottle' contains a molecular sieve made of synthetic zeolite, a silicalite material. This sieve makes it possible to clean CFCs at a recycling plant, then repackage them for return to the equipment.

Each cylinder can collect the CFCs from about three average-sized home refrigerators or freezers and would be dropped about at the recycling plant when full.

Ortech International, a research centre based in Mississauga, Ont. is fine-tuning the sieve and will test a pilot-scale recycling centre to clean and repackage the CFCS.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:seminar
Author:Silbert, Marvin
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Previous Article:Polymer Preprints, Japan, 2 vols.
Next Article:Chemistry at Dalhousie University.

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