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Friday, December 28, 2012

Reflections from this past year

by Mark Ollig

As Barry Manilow sang, “It looks like we made it.”

Since the 12/21/12 end-of-the-world prediction did not occur, yours truly was able to finish writing this year’s last column.

I, for one, am glad all of the predictions have ended (for now) because it was getting a bit annoying navigating through the online social media waters.

They were becoming flooded with Facebook memes, Twitter hashtags, Instagram and Flickr photos, and YouTube videos warning us about the impending 2012 apocalypse.

I suppose it only seems fitting this year ended with a prediction, and the first Bits & Bytes column from 2012, started with one. 

The first column of 2012 was also one of my favorites to write.

That column was about the fine folks from the French Lombart chocolate company, who, in the year 1912, came up with the idea to use the “technology in the year 2012” theme to increase sales of their chocolate products.

Lombart created six unique postcards titled “En I’an 2012” meaning “In the year 2012.”

They placed one of the six hand-drawn, superbly illustrated, colorized postcards inside each box of their chocolates. 

Each of these postcards depicted how a specific future technology from the year 2012 would assist in the delivery of their Lombart chocolate to a customer.

The Lombart people hoped the 100-years-into-the-future postcards would entice customers to want to see the other postcards, thus purchasing more Lombart chocolate.

A very clever marketing campaign, if I do say so myself.

One of the six postcards, which immediately caught my attention, was titled “Picturephone of the year 2012.”

The postcard shows a father standing next to the mother, who is sitting down at a table while speaking to their son via a circa 1912 telephone handset.

Both are smiling, and looking straight ahead at the living room wall, which is serving as a projection screen.

A live, videophone broadcast of their son is shown on the living room wall coming from the light-beam of a movie projector-like device on the table.

The device is wired into small box connected to the telephone handset the mother is using.

What fascinated me about this postcard is that it depicted a realistic-looking event created from someone’s imagination 100 years ago.

I hope you are able to look at this ahead-of-its-time postcard at

In June, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the new mobile Microsoft Surface tablet which he no doubt hoped would compete with the Apple iPad and other popular tablet computing devices. 

“This is the new Microsoft Surface. It embodies the new notion of hardware and software really pushing each other,” Ballmer said, while holding one of the new Surface tablets. 

Since its public unveiling, Microsoft has not released any sales numbers of the Surface tablet. The only indication of sales came from Ballmer last month, when he was quoted as saying sales have started out “modestly,” which to me means “slow.”

I do like their commercials – I’m just not an ardent supporter of their mobile tablet device. 

It might be a bit presumptuous of me, but I have a feeling their Surface tablet may end up sharing the same fate as its unpopular Vista operating system (OS). 

Speaking of operating systems, in July, yours truly switched home computing from Microsoft Windows to the Apple OS. 

The first week in July, I bravely walked into what I used to consider “enemy territory”– an Apple computer store – to purchase a new MacBook.

I remember how the smiling, young salesperson nodded at me when I sheepishly said, “I have been using the Microsoft Windows OS on personal computers since 1986, and so this will be a bit of a change for me.”

At work, I still need to use a Microsoft Windows OS, but I very much enjoy using the Apple MacBook and its OS at home. 

I was as excited as a little kid at Christmas when I received a new Kindle Fire computing tablet which was, coincidently, a Christmas gift.

The Kindle Fire uses the Android OS. 

Of course, the first thing I needed to do was to connect the Kindle’s Wi-Fi to my MacBook’s AirPort wireless network.

Once I found myself on the Web, I logged into Facebook via its mobile address and posted this status message “First time using Facebook via the new Kindle.” 

Afterwards, I realized I could have downloaded the free Kindle Facebook app which provides a much better Facebook user experience.

I quickly downloaded the Facebook app and then posted my next message, “Using the Kindle app.” This status message received some friendly Facebook “likes” which made me feel pretty good.

You know, it’s not like I’m addicted to any of those online social media networks out there.

With all self-deprecating humor aside, this writer hopes you have enjoyed reading these columns during the past year, and are looking forward to the tech-filled ride which awaits us in 2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

IBM's futuristic predictions revealed

by Mark Ollig
We process information using touch, smell, hearing, taste, and sight. 

Technology giant IBM predicts we will soon be using advanced computing technology to augment these five senses.

IBM recently released their “5-in-5” technology prognostications for the next five years. 

These predictions focus on developing advanced, cognitive computing sensory systems. 

During the 1980s, AT&T ran a commercial about using your telephone to “reach out and touch someone.” 

Within five years, our mobile devices and smartphone touch display screens may allow us to actually feel what those Egyptian cotton sheets we are looking at online are like, by “touching” the picture on the display screen. 

Digital image correlation processing, and infrared and haptic technologies producing calibrated vibrations on the display screen will allow the capturing of the texture qualities our sense of touch will be able to distinguish. 

“By matching variable-frequency patterns of vibration to physical objects, so that when a shopper touches what the webpage says is a silk shirt, the screen will emit vibrations that match what our skin mentally translates to the feel of silk,” the IBM 5-in-5 report said. 

IBM Research says they are bringing together the virtual (online) and real-world shopping experiences to our smartphones. 

Soon, we may be able to use our sense of touch to get physical feedback via the display screen on our smartphones. 

To watch an IBM video on the future of touch, go to

Smartphones in the future will also possess the sense of smell. IBM says tiny sensors having the ability to “sniff” will be contained within our smart mobile devices. 

These future smartphones will detect certain chemical biomarkers that can be found in the air. 

The biomarkers from our breath will be analyzed (via cognitive computing processing) through our smartphones. This type of application could be used to identify any existing health conditions.

Also, within the next five years, when in the grocery store, we might be able to check the freshness and quality of the meat, fruit, and produce by having our smartphones “sniff” the item. 

To view the IBM video on smell technology, go to

Within five years, we may be downloading a hearing application onto our smartphones. 

IBM predicts the sounds emanating from various sources; human, nature, animals, and even the weather will be received and coded into our smartphones and processed into meaningful information for us. 

Hearing sensor technology using auditory signaling processing to more efficiently extract and transform sound into information the human brain can comprehend would be applicable to hearing aids, or cochlear implants. 

An IBM video on futuristic hearing is at

How will IBM Research develop computing cognitive systems having the ability to taste? 

By having a professionally trained chef, now a computer engineer, on their team. 

IBM is developing a cognitive computing system which analyzes the chemical compounds in food, and how they react with each other. 

By using this information, along with psychophysical data modeling on specific chemicals in food which creates perceptions of “pleasantness, familiarity, and enjoyment,” IBM is hoping the result will be new, unique food recipes containing precise ingredient combinations that are “scientifically flavorful.”

IBM’s cognitive taste technology video is at

Seeing is believing, and IBM research is working on cognitive computer vision systems that, according to IBM, will “help us understand the 500 billion photos we’re taking every year.” 

Although we know how the human eye processes images, today’s computing technology is unable to exactly replicate human sight.

IBM is trying to get the computer to “reason out” what a particular image is, by having it detect patterns in a photo, or determine what it is “seeing” from video taken on a smartphone. 

For example, by providing photos of various sandy beach scenes to a cognitive computing program, it is thought the program would eventually be able to distinguish the individual features, color distributions, texture patterns, surroundings, and other information. Motion-related information data would be used if the source came from a video. 

The cognitive programming would “learn” the distinct features of various beach scenes and their surroundings. 

It is hoped that with enough learning, the cognitive computer would be able to distinguish one sandy beach from another, and thus determine if a shoreline it “sees” is located in France or in California. 

The idea is to have a cognitive computer learn various outdoor environments, including outdoor structures, plants, trees, animals, birds – you get the idea. Thus, the next time we are in France, and hold our smartphone’s camera in front of say, the Eiffel Tower (or an outdoor location we are unfamiliar with), the phone will “recognize” it and provide us with detailed information.

IBM’s sight technology video is at

This columnist would like to say Merry Christmas to his mom, and to all his faithful readers. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We are immersed in online social media

by Mark Ollig

As 2012 ends, it has become evident most of us have made using online social media a part of our daily lives.

And, yes, I count myself as one of those obsessed onliners who cannot get through the day without reporting in on my Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

Just how immersed are we? According to Social Media Report 2012, as prepared by Nielsen Media, one out of three people, ages 18 to 24, will use online social media – even while in the bathroom.

It’s no surprise people are taking their iPhones or other mobile devices with them into the bathroom.

In fact, I had a friend tell me where he works it is normal seeing people walking past him to the bathroom – carrying a mobile device. He went on to say there are times when he sees a person forgetting their mobile device in the bathroom, and then a few minutes later, they will sheepishly walk past him again to retrieve it.

Am I disclosing TMI (too much information) here?

The Nielson report also said more than half of the 25-to 34-year-olds used social media networking while in an office work environment.

In addition to the variety of Internet online social media sites we frequent, we are also spending more time being connected to them.

From July 2011 to July 2012, the amount of time we spent online increased 21 percent.

Although its total number of unique visitors has dropped by 4 percent in one year’s time, Facebook remains the number-one online social network.

Twitter, on the other hand, has seen an increase of 13 percent. 

Google+, which began in September 2011, has realized an increase of 80 percent.

The newest online social media superstar called Pinterest, a theme-based, photo-pinning sharing website, saw its number of new visitors increase an impressive 1,047 percent.

The manner in which we connect to social media networks has also changed during the course of a year. 

In 2012, we saw a 9 percent increase in the use of mobile phones accessing online social networks than reported in 2011.

Using a personal computer versus a mobile device still accounts for lion’s share of how we connect to our social media, although this method did drop 3 percent from last year, and now stands at 94 percent.

Using mobile devices will, no doubt, continue its growth in popularity as the preferred method for online social media access.

In fact, the biggest percentage increase for the year was seen from the use of mobile computing tablet devices.

In 2011, three percent of those polled said they used a tablet device for social networking, this year it increased to 16 percent.

Mobile web usage was up 82 percent, and mobile web applications (apps) saw an increased usage of 85 percent.

So, how do we feel after we have participated in our social networking sessions?

The report says 76 percent of us felt positive, while 21 percent felt negative.

I noticed the “word cloud” in the section of the Nielsen report talking about how we feel after a social media session.

“Connected” and “informed” are the most popular words, while “amused,” “indifferent,” “wasted time,” and “sad” were some of the other words chosen.

You’ve probably come across a word cloud application – sometimes called a tag cloud – while on a website.

The word cloud box contains words of different sizes. These words summarize a visual representation of user-generated content, in this case, specific words mentioned.

Seeing a larger-sized word (tag) in the word cloud means it has been repeated the most on the site in response to a question, subject, comment, or as found in a blog.

A word cloud for me is sort of like taking the current pulse of a subject being discussed or asked about on a site and seeing the most popular words being expressed for it, or, in the case of the
Nielsen report, the feelings being expressed.

The modern, online social media usage of word clouds began when Flickr (a video and image hosting website owned by Yahoo), began using them in 2004.

Growing since 1992, “Social media and social networking are no longer in their infancy,” says Deidre Bannon, vice president of media analytics for Nielsen.

In her video presentation, Bannon disclosed that more than 27,000,000 pieces of publically-created content are being shared each day over social media networks.

Since we spend so much time absorbed within our social media networks, I feel it is a good idea to take a break from them once and a while.

Sometimes, a brief hiatus from being online is needed to clear our minds.

And, with that, let’s all go out and enjoy Minnesota’s winter wonderland and participate in everything this picturesque, snow-filled environment has to offer.

Afterwards, we will undoubtedly feel obligated to report in to Facebook and Twitter with our video, photos, and comments.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The remarkable SSD

by Mark Ollig
It was 36 years ago when the first solid-state drive (SSD) computer storage device was introduced. 

Dataram Corporation, a New Jersey technology company founded in 1967, is a maker of computer software, and memory/data storage products. 

In 1976, Dataram introduced the first true SSD, called the Bulk Core system. 

Eight individual memory cards, each packaged with 256KB (kilobytes) of Random Access Memory (RAM) chips were installed in a rack-mounted chassis that measured 19-inches wide by 15.75-inches high. 

The Bulk Core system provided 2MB (megabytes) of memory storage (considered large in 1976) for several computers of that time.

Some of these computers were ones made by Data General and Digital Equipment Corporation.

This system used a core memory, which is said to have been 10,000 times faster than that of the traditional read-write hard disk drive (HDD) spinning metal platter storage systems used back in 1976. 

The Bulk Core system consumed less power and had no moving parts – just like today’s SSDs.

The time needed to access the stored data on the Bulk Core system ranged from 0.75 milliseconds to 2 milliseconds.

By comparison, today’s flash memory SSDs have a nominal data access time of around 0.06 milliseconds.

Flash non-volatile memory retains its data when not powered. It uses non-moving parts (computing chips) and a controller component whereby data stored in memory can be programmed, quickly accessed and read, erased, and re-programmed.

During the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Swiss Army knife maker Victorinox showed off their new knife which included a compact USB 3.0 SSD drive containing an impressive 1TB (terabyte) of storage capacity.

This 1TB drive can be accessed via a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 port, and has a dotted-monochrome LED display that can be programmed for labeling the drive.

The price: $2,000.

Granted, this price is exceptionally more expensive than what a typical external 1TB portable hard drive you can simply plug into your USB port would cost (which is around $150), but, if you really want to impress your tech-geek friends this Christmas with a Swiss Army knife containing a 1TB SSD stick – go for it. 

Here is an eye-catching photo of the Victorinox Swiss Army knife and 1TB SSD:

Traditional hard disk drives use tiny magnetic variants that are read by the disk’s read/write head, similar to how music in a groove from a vinyl record is read by the record player’s needle. 

Although the inevitable (and understandably) traumatic event of a computer internal hard disk drive crash is looking to soon become a thing of the past, there exists an equally troubling dilemma with using SSDs. 

Newer, lighter, and more robust SSDs are being put into increasingly more powerful computing devices. 

Today, SSDs are commonly used as a storage medium – it’s easy plugging them into a connecting port. 

They are lighter, smaller, and more durable than a traditional HDD.

We put them into our digital cameras for storing photos and video. SSDs also store our music, apps, and other files. 

However, SSDs do have a limit to how many times they can store and re-store data.

SSDs use computer chips that store the data onto a thin oxide layer, which, unfortunately, degrades the more it is used. 

Flash memory wears out after about 10,000 program-erase or P/E cycles. 

This is because every time the data is rewritten or “flashed,” the layer of oxide will degrade a bit. 

After doing about 10,000 P/E cycles, this oxide layer will have degraded to the point where it can no longer be used.

Engineers working for Macronix International, a leading provider of non-volatile memory semiconductor solutions, have created an ingenious way for repairing this oxide layer to dramatically extend the life of the SSD. 

While it was known heat could be used to repair damage done to the oxide layer, its application was not practical, as it would require the chip to be heated for several hours at about 482 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Macronix engineers designed a chip with built-in heaters which are able to restore this oxide layer by quickly “jolting” the oxide layer with heat – up to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit – for just a few milliseconds. 

By doing this periodically, and alternating the heat to different parts of the chip, engineers say they can increase the P/E cycles from 10,000 to an incredible 100 million. 

This process means we will soon be able to use with confidence, SSD storage devices for an extended period of time and not worry about them failing, which to me, is remarkable.