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Friday, August 24, 2012

Considering the greatest technological achievements

by Mark Ollig
The first great technological achievement which may come to mind for many of us is the Apollo 11 moon landing.

During July 1969, NASA successfully landed people on the moon and returned them safely to the earth. After this historic event, many of us assumed it was just the beginning of the great human exploration of our solar system.

Dec. 14, 1972, the last human beings to walk on the moon lifted off from its surface. The Apollo 17 astronauts, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, sped away in their lunar module’s ascent stage.

The next scheduled moon missions, Apollo 18, 19, and 20 – were canceled.

After the moon landings, I really believed NASA would regroup and begin plans on sending humans to the planet Mars, and beyond.

It’s been almost 40 years since the last Apollo moon mission, and human space travelers have been confined to working in low earth-orbit.

I do recognize NASA’s other great technological achievements:

• The Viking Lander mission to Mars.

• America’s first orbiting space station; Skylab.

• The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.

• The space shuttle era.

• The International Space Station.

• The Hubble telescope.

• Mars robotic rovers; Spirit and Opportunity.

• The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter circling the moon.

• The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite studying the sun.

• The new Curiosity rover, which is just beginning its exploration of Mars.

• The satellites which have ventured out into space to study other planets and celestial objects.

I am looking forward to seeing the pictures to be taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s replacement. The JWST is scheduled to be launched in 2018.

One specific, technological achievement yours truly is grateful for is the telephone.

“It is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, country houses, shops, manufactories, etc. uniting them through the main cable with a central office, where the wire could be connected as desired, establishing direct communication between any two places in the city,” Alexander Graham Bell prophetically said in March, 1878.

Bell was granted US patent No. 174,465 in 1876 for the invention of the telephone.

In 1885, German mechanical engineer, Karl Friedrich Benz, designed and built the first automobile as we know it today.

Germany Patent DRP No. 37435 was awarded to Benz for the first automobile to use a gasoline-powered, internal-combustion engine.

His automobile drove using three-wheels, powered by a four-cycle engine.

Benz also built a four-wheeled automobile in 1891.

Of course, automobiles need a good road system to travel over, so I feel the engineering and construction of this nation’s modern highway system should also be counted among the greatest technological achievements.

Some have said this program started during President Eisenhower’s administration back in the 1950s; however, The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 was actually the first serious attempt to engineer a national roadway system.

This act planned on having a toll-financed, national highway system.

It was determined the amount of automobile and truck traffic at the time was insufficient to financially fund it. 

The final recommendation was for a 26,700-mile system of no-toll highways.

No actual construction was started at that time.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 increased the nation wide highway system to 40,391 miles.

The Congress entrusted state highway agencies and the Department of Defense with designing highway routes to directly connect the major cities with the industrial centers.

Unfortunately, no funds were approved for its construction.

Finally, in 1954, during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, funding in the amount of $175 million was set aside for the construction of an interstate highway system.

After further study, it was realized Eisenhower’s vision for a national highway system was going to need a lot more money in order for it to be built.

In 1956, a $25 billion budget was authorized for its construction.

Legislation passed in 1956 increased the number of highway miles to 41,012.

In 1990, the interstate highway system was officially renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Today, the US interstate highway system has extended itself out to more than 47,000 miles.

We can fly in the air, thanks to the efforts of the two Wright brothers, named Orville and Wilbur.

It was on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, NC, when the Wright brother’s flying machine, named “Wright Flyer,” made its first historic flight.

A four-cylinder engine powered the Wright Flyer as it carried its human pilot, Orville Wright, who steered the flying machine in the air at a level position.

Orville maneuvered the Wright Flyer and used a controlled landing procedure which returned him and flying machine safely back onto the ground.

The plane traveled 120 feet, and the flight lasted 12 seconds – indeed, this was a great achievement.

Three more flights were made that day. Wilbur Wright was at the controls of the Wright Flyer and traveled some 825 feet. This flight lasted 59 seconds – the longest of the day. 

And with that, faithful readers, we come to the end of part one of this column.

Make sure to come back next week for the conclusion of this humble columnist’s commentaries on the greatest technological achievements.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

NASA's most advanced planetary rover

by Mark Ollig
“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Equipped with 17 on-board cameras, this six-wheeled, 1,982-pound, car-sized, robotic-rover called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity, traveled more than 350 million miles on its voyage to Mars. 

Currently, the MSL Curiosity rover is located approximately 158 million miles away from us, stationed on the surface of the planet Mars since its landing Aug. 5.

Curiosity is being powered not by solar cell panels (as were the previous, smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity), but with something called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).

The MMRTG draws its power by generating electricity from the heat caused by the natural decaying of the 10.6 pounds of Plutonion-238 which is encased inside the rover. 

The Plutonion-238 is a non-weapons grade material, and is constantly dissipating heat, which powers the Mars rover during the day and night. 

There are advantages to using this “nuclear battery” (as NASA calls it) instead of solar cells – which are dependent upon sunlight. 

Some advantages of using the MMRTG:

• Curiosity will be able to operate 24 hours a day.

• Longer mission: Using the MMRTG with Plutonion-238 means Curiosity should have a minimum operational lifetime of 14 years.

• The MMRTG is smaller and lighter, compared to a typical rover’s solar power plant.

• There is no need for a separate heating system, as “waste heat” from the MMRTG is circulated throughout the rover and is used as a thermal control system to keep its instruments, computers, mechanical devices, and communications systems within their operating temperature ranges.

• MMRTG has little or no sensitivity to cold, radiation, or other effects from being in space or in the Martian environment.

• Much more of the surface of Mars will be able to be explored.

“Curiosity is a geo-chemical experiment we are sending to Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory deputy science manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Curiosity is seeking to find evidence of the conditions needed which could have sustained life on Mars in the past.

“We’re not actually looking for life; we don’t have the ability to detect life if it was there. What we are looking for is the ingredients of life,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist, Mars Science Laboratory Mission.

Scientists are looking to see if Mars could have ever supported microbial life.

This robotic, exploring vehicle takes with it to Mars, 10 science instruments. 

The total size of these instruments is 15 times larger than the scientific payloads the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have.

One of these tools includes Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam). 

ChemCam is a laser-firing device that will shoot a highly focused pulsed laser beam at rocks from a distance. The beam, according to NASA, produces a flash of light from the ionized material, or plasma, which can be analyzed to identify chemical elements in the target. This laser device is the first of its kind to be used on Mars. 

Another instrument Curiosity will use is a drill and scoop, which is located at the end of its 7-foot robotic arm. 

This will allow the rover to gather soil and powdered samples of various rock interiors; these samples will be filtered and sent into one of Curiosity’s instrument laboratories for further analysis. 

Curiosity is located inside the Mars Gale Crater, which has layers of rock extending from its mountainous edges. The specific scientific experiments designed for exploring these layers are within the rovers driving distance.

NASA reported observations from orbit over Mars “have identified clay and sulfate minerals in these lower layers, indicating a wet history.”

Some have said Gale Crater was once a large lake or ocean. 

Curiosity has an onboard central computer that continuously monitors its operational status, and verifies commands are being executed. This computer also manages communications to and from Earth, and to spacecraft orbiting Mars which can relay any information from the rover to Earth.

The planning for this latest Mars rover exploratory operation began in 2004. 

The cost for the Curiosity mission to Mars: $2.5 billion.

The Curiosity rover will be able to traverse the surface of Mars at a top speed of 1.5-inches per second. 

I had finished my junior year of high school when on July 20, 1976; NASA’s Viking 1 Lander became the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars after detaching from the Viking 1 Orbiter, which continued to circumnavigate the red planet.

The Viking 1 Lander took soil sample measurements and sent pictures of the Martian landscape back to Earth. 

The second picture sent to Earth was a 300-degree panoramic view of the Martian surface. You can see this picture at:

The picture of the famous “Face on Mars” located in the Martian Cydonia region, taken in 1976 by the Viking 1 Orbiter, can be seen here:

The Viking 1 Lander used two Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) units which contained a plutonium 238 element.

The Viking 1 Lander was operational on the Martian surface region called Chryse Planitia, for six years. It ended communications with the Earth on November 13, 1982.

The Viking 1 Orbiter ended communications Aug. 17, 1980; however, it will continue to orbit Mars until 2019. 

To stay current on the up-to-the-minute news regarding NASA’s latest robotic rover mission to Mars, check out the MSL Curiosity Rover homepage at:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Apple co-founder's warning on cloud computing

by Mark Ollig
When Steve Wozniak talks, people listen.

As Apple’s co-founder, and the technical genius behind the original Apple computer, Wozniak has caught the attention of those who have, and are planning to move their computing storage and access from in-house, to the cloud.

Not only are businesses moving their Information Technology (IT) operations to the cloud, many individuals are now storing and accessing their files on some remote server in the cloud, as well.

In a column yours truly wrote on March 30, 2009, I spoke about cloud computing, saying it “essentially enables computer users to easily access the applications they normally use directly over the Internet, instead of having them stored on their local hard drives or business computer servers. As an alternative to having your software data and applications reside in your computer’s hard drive, they would be accessibl e from a remote central server, which would distribute them like any other application resource to you via the Internet.”

It seemed to me that moving our data and applications onto the cloud just made practical sense.

Steve Wozniak recently expressed his concerns about cloud computing by saying, “I really worry about everything going to the cloud. I think it’s going to be horrendous. I think there are going to be a lot of horrible problems in the next five years.”

Upon reading this quote, my first thoughts were “Have we fully thought this through? Is our information really secured and safe when stored in some data server located who-knows-where, out in the cloud?”

The “Woz” is worried about it; he talked about the transfer of ownership of the information stored on our computing devices.

We are moving data from our computer’s internal and external hard disk drives and other physical media like DVDs and CD’s, onto cloud-based storage mediums.

No doubt many of us recall the days of backing up our computer’s information onto floppy disks; we dutifully performed our computing housekeeping chores.

We did not want to lose our data.

“With the cloud, you don’t own anything. You already signed it away,” said Wozniak.

I never gave this much thought. How many of us work on documents using Google Docs, or upload our photos to Photobucket, Google Photos, Pinterest, or Flickr?

We store and retrieve our music and video from the cloud using iTunes in Apple’s iCloud, or one of the many other cloud-storage providers.

We use cloud-based email service providers such as AOL, Hotmail, Microsoft, Yahoo, or Gmail.

When using a Google Docs (soon to be Google Drive) program, or our Internet email, we are using applications which are created, stored, and accessed – via cloud computing.

Individuals using Chromebook computers, for example, are accessing all their programs from the cloud.

Even the social media providers we use, such as Facebook, are storing all the messages, pictures, and video we upload to it.

We are placing all our trust in these online, cloud-based service providers.

I think about all our personal banking and credit information being stored in some cloud-based server.

Will our data remain securely stored in their portion of the cloud?

Will our data always be there when we need to access it?

“A lot of people feel, ‘Oh, everything is really on my computer,’ but I say the more we transfer everything onto the web, onto the cloud, the less we’re going to have control over it . . . I really worry about everything going to the cloud,” warned Wozniak.

The lack of having direct control and, in a sense, “ownership” of our data once it is stored in the cloud is obviously of great concern to Wozniak.

“I want to feel that I own things,” he said.

Granted, once our information is in the cloud, it is essentially being stored on a hard disk or data-server in a physical building – someplace.

Our cloud-based data could be stored inside a data center in the same or different state we live in.

Can I also suggest some of our data might even be stored in a different country?

Our cloud-based data can only be accessed via an Internet or direct network connection of some kind.

What would happen if that remote cloud-based server or data center experienced some catastrophe?

We assume our data is redundantly stored or safely backed-up onto data servers in other geographic locations.

Years ago, when I worked at my home town’s telephone company, we would back up important information from the digital telephone switching system onto magnetic tape cartridges and store them off-site. In the event of some calamity occurring with the digital equipment, or if a disaster would hit the physical building itself and destroy the digital switch, the safely stored off-site information would be retrievable – and thus could be loaded back onto a new digital telephone switching system.

How confident are we about our information being safely kept in the cloud?

The words of Steve Wozniak should be listened to, and they should give us some pause to think about our data being stored in the cloud.

We should be asking questions, such as:

• Besides ourselves, could someone else access our cloud-stored data?

• How is our data backed-up in the cloud?

• How secure, how protected is our data in the cloud?

• Is the data stored in the cloud encrypted?

• Could our data stored in the cloud be compromised in any way?

• Is the information being stored in the cloud “nonpublic” or, is it viewable by certain business or government entities?

• When I delete information I have stored in the cloud, is it permanently removed from all of the data servers in the cloud?

For a business, you would want to know where your data is being physically stored; I would ask where the data servers are geographically located and what disaster recovery plans the cloud-based service vender has.

I would also ask a business IT cloud-based service provider if they themselves have a back-up cloud provider that keeps in-sync with them in the event they, as my business’s primary cloud-based IT vender, experienced some disaster resulting in the loss of my data.

Folks, it’s time to take a closer look at the pros and cons of storing our data solely out in the cloud.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Top social media website rankings

by Mark Ollig     

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn – many of us are using one or more of these familiar social media websites.

Being curious about the recent online social media rankings, I checked out a list of the top 10 most-visited social media websites as compiled by Experian Hitwise, a subsidiary of Experian Marketing Services.

“Leveraging the world’s largest sample of online consumer behavior intelligence,” it says on Experian Marketing Services website.

For the week ending June 30, its sampling numbers are as follows:

Starting at number 10, the social media website MeetMe had 10,541,670 total visits.

• MeetMe says it is a social media website “where new friends meet.” MeetMe provides social games and apps. This website is headquartered in Pennsylvania and can be found at

• Before Facebook came along, I used MySpace. Today, this social networking website is ranked at number nine. It had 10,941, 526 visits. MySpace is found at

• This next social media website used for networking business and job opportunities is ranked at number eight. The numbers show LinkedIn with 20,235,962 total visits. You can visit their website at

• Number seven is a social media website called Tagged.

This website boasts that it is “The social network for meeting new people.”

Tagged offers playing games online with others, and sharing interests via chatting. It had 20,299,682 visits.

This website is located at

• Google’s new social media website called Google+ comes in at number six, with 21,934,956 visits.

Google+ has not taken away very many users from Facebook; however, it is continually making changes as it tries to find the right formula, and the right combination of features to sway more users to their website.

Although I’m a member of Google+, I still spend most of my time using Facebook, as nearly all of my Facebook friends have not migrated to Google+.

The Google+ homepage is

• At number five we find Yahoo! Answers.

“Yahoo! Answers is a place where people ask and answer questions on any topic. Why not share your facts, opinions and personal experiences with the Yahoo! Answers community?” proclaims the statement on the Yahoo! Answers website.

Visits here were listed at 23,063,168. You can find Yahoo. Answers at

• Pinterest is the current buzzword out on the social media listings, and is considered by many to be one of the more popular up-and-coming social media sites.

Pinterest says it is “a content sharing service that allows members to pin images, videos, and other objects to their pinboard. [The website] also includes standard social networking features.”

It is currently ranked fourth. Total visits to Pinterest during the sampling period were 24,166,237.

Now we come down to the final three social media websites. Can you guess what they are?

These three are solid social media sites; meaning, in this humble writers opinion, they are currently the foundation for online social media being used in this, and many other countries.

• Coming in at number three, according to the folks at Experian Hitwise, is Twitter, with 55,408,477 visits.

Twitter calls itself “a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions, and news about what you find interesting.”

Twitter has grown from a small, experimental online social messaging venue, into a worldwide news, political, celebrity, personal and business messaging tool.

You can find Twitter at You can find my Twitter rants there at user bitsandbytes.

• Ranked number two is the popular online social video sharing website, YouTube.

For the week ending June 30, YouTube registered 549,509,277 visits.

“Founded in February 2005, YouTube allows billions of people to discover, watch, and share originally-created videos. YouTube provides a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small,” states YouTube’s website.

Many of us not only upload videos to YouTube, but spend hours watching and commenting on them. Their website is located at

And so we have come down to the number one online social media website. Was there any doubt it wouldn’t be Facebook?

• The number one online social media website, located at, had an incredible 1,701,466,617 visits for the week ending June 30.

“Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study, and live around them,” says their website.

Facebook has become the number one online social media venue because of its users who regularly post messages, photos, videos, and links on it for other Facebook members, family, and friends to see.

Today, many businesses and organizations are using Facebook as a resource tool for directly communicating with people.

It was reported by online social statistics gatherer Socialbakers, that during July, Facebook had 156.2 million users in the US alone, and more than 900 million users worldwide.

What new feature components will be used in creating the next number one online social media website? 

Stay tuned.