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McGill Reporter
September 11, 2003 - Volume 36 Number 01
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In focus

Denise Nahas: battling bugs, nursing networks

Fixing an ailing computer may be a paralyzing thought for many. Denise Nahas wants to set your mind at ease.

Denise Nahas
Claudio Calligaris

"Computers are not rocket science," says the new director of McGill's computer customer services department. "Programming and computers are just tools for what you want to be doing."

Armed with plenty of tools herself, Nahas, the director of the Information Systems and Technology customer services department, has set out on a mission to get as much information into the hands of computer users all over campus.

In her job, Nahas oversees an office of 40 permanent staffers and 20 students, who deal with questions ranging from software bugs to network failures. Her team does everything from walking McGill staffers through a fix-it of an ornery printer to building training materials for all 40,000 computer users.

"We are the front line," Nahas says. "We are aware of all the problems coming in and out."

The 33-year-old Beirut, Lebanon, native left her home country with her parents in 1985 because of the civil war. Her parents went to Montreal because her mother's family had been living here for more than 20 years. "When I was old enough to choose a place to live, I stayed in Montreal because I love it and consider it my home," she says.

Nahas graduated from École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1991 with a degree in chemical engineering, but quickly found her passion: computer support. She took over McGill's newly created position in January after spending 10 years in technical support at a private company.

She enjoys trouble-shooting and predicting people's problems.

"I always liked helping people," she says. "It's gratifying. You do get the complaints, but you always get the 'thank yous.'"

The move to McGill invigorated Nahas. New ideas and solutions bounce back and forth and creativity flows, she says. "This place is alive," she says. "The energy is amazing."

Nahas has needed a lot of it. Since starting her job, the largest project has been overseeing the consolidation of all computer help desks into one central location.

"The advantage of consolidation is to ensure the end user is getting service all the time," she says. "If someone goes on vacation, there won't be an interruption in service."

Before, students and staff with perplexing computer questions each had to call a separate phone number. Different departments had their own computer support. Now, all calls are funnelled to the same office.

Her team spent the summer moving all equipment and people into one physical location in Burnside Hall. Training for the staff had to be beefed up, too.

The biggest challenge has been managing the consolidation in the midst of the office's regular business. "We've been working in parallel on these," she said. "We're still supporting the people and still fighting the virus attacks."

During the latest virus onslaught that paralyzed businesses and universities across North America, her staff fanned out across the campus to resuscitate sick computer systems.

While computer bugs come with the job, Nahas prefers to spread the word of computer know-how. Her staff has developed a video clip available for students in residential halls. It walks them through installation of anti-virus software programs.

Other team members are working on more training video clips for McGill staff and faculty that they can access from their computer desktops.

And they've just launched a new virtual help desk where users can find answers to most of their computer questions.

"In communications, things shouldn't be a secret," Nahas says. "We want to put the tools out there so people can help themselves -- and help themselves at nine o'clock at night if they want."

Check out Information Systems and Technology customer service's new online virtual help desk at


Men produce 100 million sperm each and every day, while women produce just one functional egg a month. If you produced a contraceptive for a man that was 95 percent efficient, you would still have five million sperm. A male contraceptive has to be 100 percent, and that is a very difficult job.

Bernard Robaire, Pharmacology professor quoted in The Independent for an article entitled "Will men ever be on the Pill?"

Game show smarts

Well, it's doubtful anyone who becomes a professor expects to get rich, but if your back-up plan was to win it all on "Jeopardy" you might want to reconsider. All those years of tuition and grant applications won't help you on TV quiz shows, according to a new report.

Whether it's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" or "The Weakest Link," non-academics are at least as likely to hit the jackpot as intellectuals, says Joachim Prinz, an economic scientist from Germany's Witten/Herdecke University.

He said, "Contrary to popular opinion, the results of my research showed that workers and housewives fared just as well, if not better, than academics. Expert knowledge is not always the recipe for success. In some situations, knowledge that is collected in everyday life is more useful."

Professor Prinz looked at 149 male and female contestants who appeared on "Wer Wird Millionär ?," the German version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

He said, "There are questions from many areas including showbiz, sports and pop. Watching TV or solving crossword puzzles are therefore more useful than expert knowledge."

Bad news for those fighting off a mid-life crisis: grey hair is no advantage over the greenest undergrad on television. Prinz found life experience gave no edge to game-show contestants over their younger competitors.

For his research, Professor Prinz had to sit through hours of the quiz show as German television station RTL, which broadcasts the programme, refused to release any details about the contestants or results of the shows for the scientific study.

Disappointingly, Prinz did not study whether the tenure review process better prepares academics for shows such as "Fear Factor." n

With files from The Times Higher Education Supplement


Most of the kids tell us they have been sneaking into [Quebec] casinos since they were 15 or 16 years of age.

Jeffrey Derevensky, Education professor and co-director of McGill's International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviour talks to the Gazette on an Institut de la statistique du Quebec study.

The Agrodome on Macdonald campus
Agrodome Inc.

The tank that stank

Imagine, if you will, a 1,000-cubic-meter tank of pig manure. The nose crinkles at the mere thought, no? Well, Macdonald campus has just such a facility, but rather than emitting a malodorous miasma, the tank fumes, if not likely to be bottled as the next J. Lo scent, at least will not knock you out of your shoes from a kilometre away.

The improved scent control is a result of a long-term project recently brought to fruition in collaboration with AgroDome Inc., a Quebec-based company at the farm. Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering professor Suzelle Barrington explained that the technology to cut the noisome emanations from the tank was extremely simple.

The manure from the pig herd of roughly 600 animals is collected into a giant cement tank. A black liner lies atop the effluvia, and an inflatable dome shields it all from the elements.

"The dome itself has been up since this spring, but the essential liner, which is floating on top of the manure, has been up for two years now," said Barrington.

The liner does the hard work. The distinct aroma of pig poo comes about from air interacting with the top layer of the manure. The upper layer in turn transmits oxidized material to the lower layer. There, anaerobic bacteria work their magic to create the stench so familiar to hog-farm neighbours. The Macdonald farm liner prevents the top layer of pig-business coming in contact with air. The bacteria are still there, and breaking down manure, but without the oxygen, they produce far less smell.

The dome is not essential to this process. When originally planned, it was thought it would be needed as insulation to keep the manure at a high enough temperature that the bacteria could continue to work. This proved unnecessary, but the dome is providing an important secondary service.

"Odours are psychological. When people see something going on that is positive, they think that they should smell less, and so they do smell less," said Barrington.

In addition to reducing smell, the device increases the fertilizer value of the manure, as the bacteria are not breaking down certain nutrients that are valuable for farming. Even better, said Barrington, is the potential for the methane trapped by the liner to be used for energy.

"There's two ways of doing this. The standard way is to use the methane to make electricity and hot water. The other way is if we could generate the methane, and a company could pick it up for use in hydrogen cells, then that would be even more attractive."

Barrington said that in addition to being a simple and cost-effective technique for farmers, the liner and dome concept could be adapted for municipalities to deal with their waste water.

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