Thoughts by Richard Bleil
As an undergraduate, a pretty strange thing happened where I went to college. The library had put in automatic shelves. At issue was shelf space and limited physical space in the library. As the collection grew, it became apparent that they needed a clever solution to get more shelf space without building or expanding on the library. They settled on the idea of electric automatically collapsing shelves.
The shelves were put on tracks, and if you pressed a button on the isle that you needed, all of the bookshelves would move to open up that row, or however many needed to move, anyway. Now, as a safety feature, there were pressure pads built into the floor such that if a student is in the isle in one location that needs to be collapsed to make space for another row nearby to open, the system will be deactivated so the occupied row will remain open.
Unfortunately, there was a weight limit to activate the pressure pads, and one particularly petite young student just didn’t quite have the mass to register. Sure enough, searching the shelves, somebody nearby pressed a button and, well, the library ate her. The good news is that, aside from minor bruises, she was released unharmed. The fire department showed up, but the bad news is that it took them several hours to release her. I mean, I love books, but seriously, I’d be pretty paranoid if a library tried to eat me.
In the new forensic warehouse, we had a similar set-up, where the shelves could be moved as needed. We really didn’t need that extra space, but it the shelves were built to be moveable in anticipation of needing to add more shelves at a later date. There were a couple of major differences, though, between the warehouse and the library. Although it was built thirty-five or so years later, the warehouse had mechanical mechanism to move the shelves. In addition, aside from me (as I was the lab director), only two additional people had access to the warehouse. It was pretty easy, then, to be able to safely move the shelves with a high degree of certainty that it was safe to do so.
Sometimes, manual is just simply better. I’ll be honest with you; I don’t always understand the obsession our society seems to have with computer chip products, especially when analogue systems work just as well, or perhaps even better. My washing machine and dryer are fancy, computerized and very cool. In three more years, they’ll be considered “antiques” by today’s standards, and will probably fail. The warrantee will expire, and miraculously, the seals will begin leaking and the tubs will begin making noise as the motor burns itself out. On the other hand, my mother’s washer and dryer lasted for decades, and probably would still work today if they were still in use. The device didn’t have a computer chip in it. My two cars both have computer chips, and can be tracked or even operated remotely, but the old Ford I had before these was manual and not connected to the internet. If I wanted to disappear, I wouldn’t try to do it in these new vehicles of mine because they can be so easily tracked down. And are they really better with the computer chip? They don’t need a carburetor, I suppose, so they’re less likely to flood, but the old carburetor motors worked just fine.
I’m kind of a tech junky, and I admit it. I have eight computers in my house, not including my cellphone. And computers have their place. While teaching, another institution decided to upgrade their fluorimeter, a very cool and uncommon analytical instrument, and we ended up with their old one. This old one was seriously cool, and huge. Their new one was not much larger than my 3-D printer (I did mention that I’m a tech junky, didn’t I?), but the old one spread out over an area larger than my oversized table. That old one was perfect for educational purposes because you could easily point out each component and explain why it was laid out as it was. Their new one was basically the same, but far more compact and encased making it harder to actually show how it worked. But the output of their old one, our fluorimeter, went to an old plotter printer which had a pen that moved according to voltage, and paper that moved in time. As such, it would draw graphs of voltage versus time, but you couldn’t capture it on a computer. Well, I could.
A student once told me that he could build any circuit I could possibly need. Okay, I said, the output of this device is analogue. I asked him to build an analogue to digital converter. His answer was, “what does ‘analog’ mean?” Fortunately, there are commercially available ADCs (Analog Digital Converters). I obtained one of these ADCs, hooked it up to my fluorimeter and plugged it into my computer. Sure enough, I captured the signal on my system. This was another great opportunity to teach my chemistry majors about analog and digital instruments, but if I can be honest with you, there was something very satisfying to watch that old analog plotter printer do its work. Sometimes I really miss analogue devices.