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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Saying good-bye to yesterday's technology can be hard to do

Nov. 1, 2010
by Mark Ollig

Last week I posted a link on my Facebook page about Sony’s announcement to discontinue, or “retire” the manufacturing of their Sony Walkman portable cassette tape player.

Trivia answer: Kozo Ohsone is the person who coined the term Sony “Walkman.”

Some of us will no doubt recall when Sony introduced this new portable cassette player back in 1979.

My first thought after looking at one was a bit doubtful; “There’s no record button on it.”

It was, however, a very portable and easy-to-carry around stereo cassette player with adequately fitting headphones.

It used two “AA” batteries, which, I discovered, required regular replacement.

During the 1980s, the Sony Walkman cassette player had its highest popularity.

Before the Walkman, the only “portable” music player I owned was the transistor radio I carried around with me (or taped to the handlebars of my bicycle).

In the mid 1970s, former Holy Trinity classmates may remember my portable radio being present (and usually turned on) during a few classes.

I also had a Radio Shack Realistic CTR-41 cassette tape recorder I liked a lot.

A person could walk around with this cassette recorder while it played music, so it was in a sense, “portable,” but one needed to keep from jostling it about so the tape wouldn’t wobble around and affect the audio play-back quality. All in all, it was a well-made, compact cassette recorder.

Back in the day, our music was on vinyl records, 8-track tape cartridges, or cassette tapes. We bought them in the retail stores, or signed up for memberships in record and tape clubs, like Columbia House.

How many of you recall mailing out for tapes or record albums after watching those infamous 1970s K-tel commercials on television?

I sense we have some of the young folks scratching their heads.

Ah yes, well, if you want to see one of those vintage 1976 K-tel television commercials, check out

I remember folks recording music to cassette tapes using a dual cassette tape deck. One would copy the pre-recorded music cassette onto a blank cassette and share it with friends.

Being the ever-resourceful generation, we learned how to record songs off the radio, vinyl records, and pre-recorded cassette tapes, and onto blank cassette tapes.

Remember, kids, in the mid 1970s, we didn’t have an iTunes to download music and sync it to an iPod.

There was no BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol or pirated music sharing websites like Napster (which was sued by record companies and forced to shut down in 2001).

If members of my generation are feeling a bit nostalgic, you can watch videos of those old vintage cassette recorders on YouTube.

YouTube has many videos uploaded from people proudly showing off their working vintage cassette recorders. Several give details about AC and DC bias source recorders and provide a bit OF history about them.

My first recollection of tube and transistor radios, portable reel-to-reel tape recorders, dial telephones, 8-track tape decks and stereo consoles playing 45 rpm and LP 33 1/3 rpm vinyl records was during the 1960s.

No, I don’t remember people playing Thomas Edison 78 rpm records – although I do have one.

The technology kept improving during the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the ‘00’s.

Gosh, that’s five decades worth of technology I have lived through (so far).

It’s actually six decades, if you count the two years of the 1950s I lived in.

Not that I’m counting.

So, how do you feel about living through the years of dealing with changes in technology?

I sometimes find it challenging . . . but when I understand, it becomes very satisfying learning about a new technology or what the next futuristic gadget is.

The improvements in the computing, digital, wireless, optical, and new organic technologies we unquestionably will be seeing in the future are worth looking forward to.

Of course, some of us like to reminisce nostalgically about past technology and the electronic devices we used from yesteryear.

Your technologically retro-columnist, wonders what the young people of today will feel about the electronic computing devices they are currently using, say 30 years from now.

In the future, when the announcement is made that the iPod and iPhone have become obsolete and will no longer be manufactured, I wonder how today’s young people will react.

Will they feel nostalgic about these devices in the same manner some of us feel about our 8-track tape players, vintage reel-to-reel and cassette tape recorders, turntables and vinyl records?

My old Sony Walkman player is stored in a box someplace, no doubt gathering dust along with my collection of cassette tapes from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

It probably still has a Doobie Brothers cassette tape in it.

As 2010 comes to a close, all of us can look ahead in anticipation to ground-breaking technological developments and the highly-advanced new gadgets we will marvel over.

My friend, Randy Lachermeier, posted this Facebook message to me, “I wish I had been born a hundred years into the future. I love technology, and can’t wait for the next new gadget to come out.”

I totally agree with you, Randy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Adventure: sending an iPhone and video camera to the edge of space

Oct. 25, 2010
by Mark Ollig

As a 10-year-old flying a kite one blustery day in late April, I recall wondering if I used enough string, could my kite soar high enough to be in space.

Not long ago, a young boy named Max, along with his father Luke Geissbuhler, decided to assemble a weather balloon with an attached homemade “craft” or capsule, and fly it into space.

Inside the capsule would be an iPhone 4 and a High Definition (HD) video camera, which would record the entire ascent into the stratosphere and the view from high above the earth.

While ascending, the balloon and capsule would have to survive turbulent 100 mph winds and freezing 60-degree below zero temperatures.

When the balloon reached its maximum atmospheric pressure limit, it would keep expanding until it burst.

The capsule would then have to withstand dizzying descent speeds of up to 150 mph.

The capsule would also need to deploy a parachute and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower in order for them to locate it.

There was also a high risk of their capsule landing in water.

Sounds like quite an adventure.

The father and son designed their “space” capsule out of a small Styrofoam container and spray painted it bright orange.

Inside the container was foam cushioning, the iPhone, HD video camera, and portable hand warmers (the kind one uses during the winter), which were packed around the electronic devices to keep them from freezing.

To prevent the capsule from spinning around as it ascended, the balloon was attached to the capsule with stabilizing foam collars.

Tracking the capsule after it landed would be accomplished using the iPhones Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, which would be monitored via MobileMe.

MobileMe is an application folks can use to find their lost iPhones or iPads.

Max and his father would have enabled the “Find My iPhone” settings on the iPhone before it was launched.

By signing into the website,, they will be able to locate the iPhone’s signal and have the capsules location displayed to them on a map.

Also inside the capsule was a brief note (hand written by Max), explaining what the person who found the capsule should do. Hopefully, the people finding this note will be Max and his dad.

The testing and preparations were completed. After eight months, following all FAA rules for weather balloons, the balloon and attached capsule were ready to leave this Earth and begin its journey towards space.

Max, his father, and a few friends, completed a final check list.

Making sure the camera was turned on, they launched the balloon with the attached capsule from Newburgh, NY.

The balloon quickly lifted off the ground, recording Max standing on a nearby rock.

The ascent was at a rate of 25 feet per second.

The video camera showed trees, homes, and other objects on the ground quickly becoming smaller.

At about 20,000 feet, the video camera displayed the blueness of the sky and the fluffy white clouds below it.

Audio is also being recorded along with the video from the capsule’s camera during the entire flight.

The sounds of swirling winds can easily be heard.

At 60,000 feet, 100 mph thermal winds are flipping the balloon and attached capsule end-over-end, but the video camera is still recording everything. This occurs 40 minutes into the launch and it will certainly be a big test for the durability of all the components.

As the capsule escapes above the thermal winds, it gently ascends to 90,000 feet.

The balloon itself has now stretched to 18 feet across and is one foot shy of its maximum expandability before it will burst.

The balloon and capsule have now attained a maximum altitude of 100,000 feet, (30.48 kilometers) almost 19 miles above the earth.

Elapsed time since launch is 70 minutes.

The view from inside the center of the stratosphere is remarkable.

The attached video camera is flawlessly recording the breath-taking bluish curvature of the cloud covered earth, along with the intense blackness of space.

While at maximum altitude, the balloon suddenly bursts. There is a short moment of weightlessness before the attached capsule begins its descent back toward the earth.

As the capsule rapidly descends, the video camera is still recording and the view of the earth quickly fills the screen, along with parts of the shredded balloon.

With only two minutes before reaching the ground, the video camera’s batteries fail, after 100 minutes worth of recording since launch.

The iPhone’s GPS tracking signal is working and the mapped location of the fallen capsule shows it is just 30 miles north of the launch area.

During the night-time hours, Max and his father find the remains of the balloon and the fully intact capsule in a tree, 50 feet off the ground.

A photograph from their web page shows a smiling Max standing alongside his father, who is holding the orange capsule.

The photograph is titled, “This thing went to space.”

So ends another adventure.

To see the edited video and read more, visit

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding safe online social networks for the kids

October 18, 2010
by Mark Ollig

Choosing safe websites for children to use has been a concern for parents and guardians since the era of web browsing over the Internet began.

Today’s popular adult social networks such as Facebook should not be used by a child under 13, according to the Federal Trades Commission (FTC) Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998.

One of the conditions in COPPA prevents websites from collecting personal information about children who are under the age of 13 without a parent’s permission.

Parents are rightly concerned about the safety of their kids while they are using the Internet.

One precaution parents can take is checking out the online social network beforehand, ensuring it is being run by a website community which has a good reputation for child safety.

Finding the answers to a few of the following questions can also help.

Does the social networking site have their telephone number and address posted?

Is the site endorsed or recommended by your local school or community?

Is the site approved by other parents you know whose children are actively participating on it?

Another precaution which can be taking is to have the children use their computer in an open living space area where their online activities can be monitored.

I found a few children-recommended social networks while reading through my online social networking “stack-of-stuff.”

One children’s themed website is called “Togetherville.”

This site imitates the experience of an adult social networking site like Facebook, but it’s age-appropriate for children and is parent-monitored.

This site contains no outside links, no unapproved friends, and no private conversations.

Parents or guardians can sign up their children by using their own Facebook accounts to create a profile for each child.

Under the site’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), Togetherville is described as a new type of online community specifically designed for kids 6 to 10.

Kids connect online with real-life friends and family in a safe, child-friendly place with parents and trusted adults.

To post comments on this site, children must agree to Togetherville’s code of conduct which states: “I agree to not say anything mean or hurtful, not say embarrassing things about myself, my friends, or my family, and take responsibility for what I say on Togetherville.”

This site also assists parents’ and guardians’ participation in their children’s introduction to social media by encouraging parent-child interaction. Not only can parents view their child’s social network activity, but they can also post messages to his or her profile wall – like on Facebook.

It should be noted there is no connection between the two companies. Togetherville is a separate website and company from Facebook.

The Togetherville social networking site is at

“Skid-e Kids” is a children’s social networking site which relies on moderators for most of its security.

This website has been reviewed by CNN and has the full endorsement from the Georgia Department of Education.

One safety feature of a site includes a software filter for inappropriate language.

All pictures uploaded are checked by a human moderator before being posted.

Any of the children-submitted articles and stories they write for the site’s “Written by You” section are edited for inappropriate language.

The site’s numerous interest group pages are also moderated.

The advantage of this site is the constant human moderation of the content.

The parents or guardians aren’t required to constantly “check in” or continually monitor their child’s online activity on the site.

You can reach the Skid-e Kids children’s themed website at

My favorite though, is a children’s website maintained by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) which provides a music learning themed website for kids and families called “SFS Kids Fun with Music.”

SFS states they are committed to musical education within their own community and beyond.

SFS says their website – in conjunction with their live performances – provides a great way for people of all ages to hear, learn, and have fun with music.

One of the music learning places on this site is called The Music Lab.

Here, children can learn, the basics of music, starting with the sheet music staff, musical notes tempo, rhythm, pitch, harmony and more.

Kids will see, learn and hear a variety of musical instruments played on this site.

The children can even create their own music and hear it being played.

The SFS Kids Fun with Music website wants children (and parents) to consider their site a premier web destination for learning about music.

The SFS Kids Fun with Music website was created by the San Francisco Symphony Education Department.

This website is located at

Your music-loving columnist encourages you to make a visit there the next time you’re online.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The White House is going solar – once again

October 11, 2010
by Mark Ollig

It was 1979.

President Jimmy Carter had given his approval for the installation of 32 solar thermal panels to be installed on the roof of the White House.

Once the solar panels were installed, President Carter, from the roof of the White House, celebrated the installation with members of the press and others.

“A generation from now, this solar heater could either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people,” Carter predicated during his rooftop speech in June of 1979.

In the late 1970s, President Carter was in charge at a time when this country was reeling through a terrible energy crisis.

We were suffering from severe gas shortages during the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo, when oil production was dramatically reduced, causing gas shortages and fluctuating prices.

Folks my age and older will remember having to wait in long lines to fill our cars with gas.

Many times we would see the “No Gas” signs hanging out in front of the gas stations.

The problems we faced back then weren’t only the rising cost per gallon of gas – it was mostly trying to find a gas station with gasoline available at the pumps.

There were many weekends when no gas was available, so people (like me) would try to keep their car’s gas tanks as close to full as possible.

I clearly remember during the week trying not to go below a half-tank of gas so I could get through the weekends; as several gas stations would be closed. Many times the local gas station owner would say, “The gas truck never made it here.”

Some folks (no humble columnist names will be mentioned) even stored gas-filled 5-gallon cans in their garages as a “reserve” in case of extended gasoline outages.

Personally, I had felt Carter’s installation of the solar panels was done more or less as a gesture to make the country aware of the need to use other sources of energy in order to reduce our dependence of oil from foreign sources.

President Carter’s solar panel system contained 32 photovoltaic panels and generated enough energy to supply the hot water needs for the entire White House, including the presidential dinning room.

In 1986, former President Ronald Reagan had the Carter solar panels removed during “roof repairs,” as one story reported it. Another story said Reagan had them removed and placed in storage because he felt the energy crisis Carter had confronted was over.

In any case, the solar panels ended up at Unity College, in rural Maine.

Some panels were installed on the roof of the college’s cafeteria (one solar panel was donated to the Jimmy Carter Museum and another was recently given to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History).

Now, some 25 years later, brand new solar panels will be installed once again on the roof of the White House.

President Barrack Obama agreed to have new solar panels installed in early 2011.

This past September, an environmental activist and author, Bill McKibben, along with a group of students from Maine, drove in a van (powered by bio-diesel fuel) to the White House.

Inside the van was one of the original “Carter solar panels,” which was still in working order.

The group from Maine wanted President Obama to re-install this original 1979 solar panel to its former location on the roof of the White House.

“It could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world,” said McKibben.

A White House official did meet with the group, but in the end, the administration deciding against re-installing the original solar panel.

It seems old White House solar panels never die; they just end up in museums or in Maine.

Recently, Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke before a clean energy conference at George Washington University and said, “By the end of this spring, there will be solar panels, that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater, on the roof of the White House.”

The new solar panels will be used for two separate systems. One will convert sunlight into energy to provide electricity, and the other will heat water to provide for the hot water needs inside the executive mansion.

Your investigative columnist discovered there will be a total of 50 new solar panels installed.

I found a picture taken of President Jimmy Carter with a group of people in 1979, as they stood on the roof of the White House. The President was making comments to them in front of the newly installed solar panels. I made a shortened link for it:

Sixteen of those original solar panels from the Carter White House still reside on the roof of the Unity college cafeteria in Maine.

Suddenly, I am starting to feel like it’s 1979 all over again . . . just to be safe; I better fill up the car today.

Check out this video sent to me by!