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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Project Loon: Internet network in the sky

by Mark Ollig


In this country, nearly everyone is able to access the Internet.

So, it came as a surprise when I learned approximately two-thirds of our planet’s population has no Internet accessibility.

Providing Internet to these underserved areas means building expensive fiber-optic cabling systems, launching earth-orbiting satellites, or using (gasp) slow, dial-up connections.

What can be done?

It’s been determined sending up balloons with Wi-Fi transmitters/receivers attached to them would work.

So, who came up with an idea like this?

Why, it was our good friends at Google.

Google’s recently announced Project Loon consists of a “network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas.”

These are not ordinary party balloons being lofted into the sky.

They are high-altitude balloons, which will be navigated via the movements of the winds inside the Earth’s stratosphere.

The balloons are large; roughly 45 feet in diameter.

Using specialized, high-bandwidth, filtered radio antennas enclosed in a small box hanging underneath these balloons eliminates any chance of radio interference from other transmission sources.

Attached batteries will store solar power for nighttime operation.

Each balloon provides Wi-Fi ground coverage of approximately 25 miles in diameter.

They will be controlled from the ground at Loon Mission Control.

The balloons will maneuver to their desired locations using wind and speed information obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Won’t these balloons create a hazard for planes and birds?

One might think so, however, remember these are high-altitude balloons, and they will be floating above the earth anywhere from 12 to 27 miles; placing them inside the stratosphere, safely above commercial aircraft and birds.

Aircraft, birds, and storms are in the space below 6.5 miles above the earth.

In the stratosphere, there are layers of wind moving west to east; however, some wind streams move in opposite directions. A balloon can be controlled from the ground to enter a certain layer of wind direction, thus “steering” the balloon as it sails through the wind.

Using this method, ground controllers can send a balloon to take the place of another which has moved on. A number of balloons could be clustered when necessary, in order to provide better Internet coverage.

So, how do these balloons provide Internet service to the folks on the ground?

A building will have a specialized Internet antenna attached on the outside which communicates with one of the Wi-Fi balloons.

Each balloon is also in communication with the other balloons. One of the balloons is designated to make the connection to an Internet ground station, which has a connection to the local Internet Service Provider.

You can see a picture of this artsy-looking Wi-Fi antenna with the red, round ball attached to it, at:

Project Loon noted their launch crews are in contact with air traffic control before any balloons are sent up or returned.

Google has already safely placed many Wi-Fi balloons into the stratosphere.

After about 100 days, a balloon will return to Earth in a controlled landing. Project Loon controllers determine exactly where it will come down. The balloon is then recycled, and its parts re-used.

Recently, 30 balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island.

This experimental balloon network transmitted Internet signals to a group of 50 Wi-Fi computer beta-testers in the Canterbury area.

One small farm located in this test area had extremely slow Internet service; the farmer there said he would sometimes need to wait 10 minutes for a Web page to download on to his computer’s screen.

This farm has many sheep. The farmer said the first thing he needs to check in the morning is the weather; “to see whether my sheep are going to dry out.”

Team members of Project Loon installed the special Wi-Fi receiver on his farmhouse.

“It’s been really exciting,” the farmer said.

With his computer connected to Project Loon’s Internet network, the farmer smiled as the first Web page he clicked on quickly downloaded to his computer.

“Bingo!” he exclaimed. “Yay!” shouted one of the members of Project Loon, who was observing.

“That was fast, too!” beamed the farmer, in reference to the downloading speed of the Internet page.

The speed of the Internet over Project Loon’s network “will be similar to today’s 3G networks or faster,” according to Google’s Project Loon blog.

I imagine some of you are asking why Google calls it Project Loon.

Well, yours truly is not completely sure why.

Seeing “Loon” I, of course, immediately thought of Minnesota’s state bird, the common loon.

I suppose the answer might have been revealed on one website stating the idea of using balloons to provide Internet seemed a bit bizarre, or loony.

Project Loon said they “hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas and, for helping with communications after natural disasters.”

“We’re using the sunlight, we’re using the wind, we’re using all of these things to build this network in the sky,” said Rich DeVaul, chief technical architect of Project Loon.

 A Google YouTube video about Project Loon can be seen at

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tianhe-2 is 'King of supercomputers'

by Mark Ollig

Costing $290 million to build, it performs an amazing 33.86 quadrillion calculations per second.

That equals 33.86 Pflop/s (petaflops). If we continue to break this down, we find one petaflop equals one quadrillion (one thousand-trillion) “flop/s” or floating-point operations (calculations) per second.

Folks, that’s 33,860,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

This powerful processing power belongs to the new Chinese supercomputer called Tianhe-2 (Milky Way-2), also called the TH-2 High Performance Computer System.

One report states this supercomputer has the potential to reach a peak performance of 54.9 Pflop/s.

The TH-2 was built by China’s National University of Defense Technology, and is currently the fastest operating computer in the world per TOP500, which rates the 500 most powerful, commercially available computer systems.

Although the TH-2 makes use of US Intel Xeon Ivy Bridge E5-2692 processors, and Intel Xeon Phi 31S1P multiprocessing accelerator/co-processing chips, the supercomputer’s system design, front-end processors, and its particular operating software, are all Chinese- made.

There are 3,120,000 processors in the TH-2, and it can hold 12.4 PB (Petabytes) worth of disk storage data, or 12,697.6 TB (Terabytes), using a Global Shared parallel storage system. It also has one petabyte of RAM (Random Access Memory).

The TH-2 is twice as fast as the previous world’s fastest supercomputer, made in the US, called the Titan Cray XK7, built by Cray Inc.

The Titan supercomputer cost around $97 million to build, and is located in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee.

It was brought online in October of 2012, and hopefully, you read my Nov. 26 column about it.

At that time, I thought the Titan would reign as the world’s fastest supercomputer for a while.

However, as we are learning from experience, newer technology and faster computers seem to pop up just about every year.

The Titan operates at 17.59 Pflop/s, which means the TH-2 is nearly twice as fast, insofar as processing power goes.

With the increase in processing power, comes an increase in the energy needed to operate all the associated hardware and computing components.

That being said, it should come as no surprise the TH-2 consumes more energy than the Titan.

Total power consumption for the Titan is 12.7 MW (megawatts), while the TH-2 consumes 17.8 MWs.

To keep the TH-2 supercomputer components from over-heating, a closed-coupled, chilled customized liquid water-cooling unit is used.

The TH-2 is housed at the National Supercomputer Center in the city of Guangzhou, which is located in Guangdong province of southern China.

The computing software operating system used in the TH-2 is called Kylin Linux. China’s National University of Defense Technology developed Kylin.

One advantage of using Kylin is its ability to support numerous microprocessors, differently-structured computers, and other conventionally-used software operating systems.

The TH-2 consists of 162 computing, communication, and data storage cabinets inside rows of frames.

A series of lights on each cabinet will blink to show activity. The cabinet doors have a horizontal strip of lights which will change color to indicate power load usage.

You can view a photo of how these lights look on the TH-2 supercomputer at:

Regarding the processors, there are 384,000 central processor cores, and 48,000 accelerator communication processor cores.

The TH-2 uses 10 Gbps (Gigabits per second) backplanes for the transmission of data operating between the computing nodes.

China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer, in addition to providing its citizens with education and research, will deliver high-performance computing service for the people living in the southern China region.

So, when will the US have its next supercomputer on the playing field?

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee, said, “The next large acquisition of a supercomputer for the US Department of Energy will not be until 2015.”

The next major advancement in supercomputing, in my opinion, will come when it breaks the exascale processing barrier.

A future supercomputer processing 1 Eflop/s (exaflops) would possess processing power equal to 1,000 Pflop/s (one thousand petaflops) as compared to the 54.9 Pflop/s maximum processing potential of the TH-2.

The US Department of Energy has an Exascale Computing Initiative group currently working on achieving 1 Eflop/s processing. In fact, they may have already come up with an operating system strategy for it.

This writer does not believe we will see 1 Eflop/s on a US supercomputer before 2023.

I also once believed there would never be a better portable personal computer than my 1995 HP OmniBook notebook PC.

Even though it is quite technologically inferior to what I use today, I still miss not having that old OmniBook around.

To see some exceptional, close-up pictures of the Tianhe-2, and to learn more about China’s new supercomputer, go to

Hmm, I wonder if there are any vintage OmniBooks available on eBay or Amazon.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Smart robotic toy cars and more at WWDC 2013

by Mark Ollig

When Apple holds a party, the entire tech world races to it.

Apple disclosed a few surprises during the recently held Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2013 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

This venue is regularly used by Apple to announce new products, technologies, and software.

A new version release called Mavericks (10.9) for the Mac OS X (operating system 10) graphical user interface was presented.

I noticed Apple did not use a cat’s name for this OS X version, as they have in prior version releases, such as: Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Lion . . . you get the idea.

This 10th version release of OS X Mavericks will include: bundling of Apple’s Maps and iBook apps (applications), providing enhanced iCloud merging, incorporating more mobile device iOS apps, and improving battery resource usage, resulting in extended battery life.

Look for Mavericks to be available this fall.

The 2013 WWDC presentation began with a short video on how Apple goes about designing a product.

While a piano lightly played in the background, a video begun scrolling text of the questions Apple considers when designing a new product.

Apple says it begins with focus, and asking what people want to feel: delight, surprise, love, connection?

In coming up with a design, there are, according to Apple, a thousand “no’s” for every “yes.”

The text introduction sums up by stating, “We simplify, we perfect, until everything we touch enhances each life.”

The WWDC 2013 keynote address began with a smiling Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, taking the stage to loud applause from the folks in the capacity-filled Moscone Center.

Cook said this was the 24th Apple WWDC, and that over 60 countries would be participating during this year’s conference.

The week-long WWDC is the place where software programmers can check out Apple’s newest software designs and applications. They can also bring in their own programming code to discuss with Apple programmers.

How popular is the WWDC? The keynote show sold out in just 71 seconds, if that is any indication.

Over 1,000 Apple engineers were available to help the programmers, along with over 120 “hands-on” labs, and 100 group break-out sessions.

Apple’s software apps are extremely popular, and the latest numbers show Apple users have downloaded over 50 billion of them to their smart devices.

Over 375,000 apps have been designed just for use on the iPad alone.

There are over 6 million registered Apple software developers, according to Cook.

Students, it pays learning how to code, and becoming an app software developer.

Cook expressed how “incredibly proud” he was to announce Apple has, so far, paid software developers $10 billion for the programming apps they have created.

Apple’s mobile iOS platform has 74 percent of the total app downloaded revenues, with Android at 20 percent, and other platforms with 6 percent.

So far, no other company has come close to taking the “app” out of Apple.

Soon after Cook addressed the audience, he introduced a new startup company called Anki.

“They’re using iOS devices and the iOS platform to bring artificial intelligence and robotics into our daily lives,” he explained.

Cook then introduced Boris Sofman, CEO and co-founder of Anki, to talk about his new company.

“We started Anki while working on our Ph.D.’s in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. We worked on everything from machine learning, to walking robots, to autonomous vehicles,” Sofman said while addressing the audience.

“With the help of iOS devices, we are bringing this technology out of the lab and into people’s lives,” he added.

Stofman explained that after five years, they are ready to present their first product, called Anki Drive, which is a real-world, smart robotic toy car racing game.

“This is a video game in the real world,” he told the cheering audience as they watched robotic cars racing and outmaneuvering each other around a flat oval racetrack which had been rolled out onto the stage.

Four robotic toy cars, each using Bluetooth technology, moved swiftly and, I might add, intelligently, as they raced against each other around the track.

Each robotic car was making its own computations to steer, maneuver, control its speed, and sense where it was located on the track while maintaining its distance in relation to the other cars.

The important thing to remember is that these cars are individually reacting to their surroundings in real-time using the Anki iOS app.

With an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, a person can control a robotic car and have competitive races against other smart device users.

Anki Drive will be available this fall at Apple Stores.

You can check out Anki on the Web at

Apple’s new mobile platform iOS 7 will be available this fall. One new feature includes Activation Lock, which is a theft deterrent function.

Before an iPhone’s “Find My iPhone” feature can be turned off, or any of its data can, be erased (wiped), the devices Apple ID and password will need to be entered.

Detailed information, including an informative video about iOS7, can be viewed at

The new Mac Pro, Apple’s latest computing work station, enclosed in a black cylindrical, tube-like aluminum case, is scheduled for release later this year.

To view the entire Apple WWDC keynote, race over to

Friday, June 7, 2013

Our curiosity about life on Mars

by Mark Ollig

John Grotzinger, chief scientist of NASA’s Mars Curiosity mission, was asked if life could exist on Mars.
Those of us seated in the Fitzgerald Theater, in St. Paul, anxiously awaited his answer.
Grotzinger paused, and then began by saying the drilled rock samples Curiosity recently obtained had a grayish-green color which excited the scientists.
Using a northern Minnesota comparison, he said the Mesabi iron ranges are made out of the type of iron that is red. Grayish rocks can also be found there.
When collecting the gray rocks, sometimes you find materials representing former organic micro-organisms that lived on Earth around 1.8 billion years ago, when these northern Minnesota rocks were being formed, Grotzinger indicated.
Hopefully, Curiosity will be able to take samples of gray Martian rocks, and look for some organic compounds, he proposed.
By studying the rocks on Mars, which have not been affected by the tectonic plate shifting as the ones here on Earth have been, Grotzinger believes we will learn more about how life got started on our planet.
Grotzinger suggests the Martian rocks may be able to “fill in the gaps” of what is missing here on Earth, and help us to understand Earth’s past.
He compared the method Curiosity uses to test Martian soil and rock samples to how a cake is made in an oven. In this case, the Martian “cake” is cooked in Curiosity’s oven at around 2,732 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heated vapor compounds given off from the Martian samples are then subjected to several scientific testing procedures.
Millions of years into the future, how will our own human existence here on Earth be proven, if some extraterrestrial intelligence would happen to visit our planet, as we are now doing on Mars?
According to Grotzinger, we will leave behind proof of our physical existence with the cholesterol animal cell membrane molecules each of us have.
Tom Weber, of Minnesota Public Radio, asked, “How many Curiosity rovers exist in the universe?”
“Well, there’s sort of two-and-a-half,” replied Grotzinger.
“That is such a NASA answer,” Weber jokingly said.
Those of us in the audience, along with Grotzinger, laughed.
Grotzinger said, “There’s the Curiosity rover on Mars, and the nearly identical rover located here on Earth called the VSTB (vehicle system test bed), which is used to check out the capability of the science instruments, using the rover arm, using the mast [camera] taking pictures. There is another rover used as a field test model they drive around at a facility at JPL called the Mars Yard. This rover drives over simulated surface conditions found on Mars to test out all the mechanical capabilities of the rover. This field model rover has none of the computers.”
This rover has “all heart and no brain . . . we call it the Scarecrow,” Grotzinger quipped.
The Curiosity rover on Mars is fitted with two built-in computers.
March 12, NASA headquarters held a news conference announcing the results from the first rock drilling experiment on Mars.
At that conference, Grotzinger, along with other scientists, made public the discovery of geological proof of an earlier existence of water on Mars.
Grotzinger said the area where Curiosity drilled into the rock looked like a “lake bed” filled with sediment derived by streams, but it is not known how long it existed. He does say they feel it was wet for reasonably long enough periods for chemical reactions to occur.
One question I liked asked of the scientists by the press attending the conference was, “How do you feel?”
Michael Meyer, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program lead scientist, began by explaining the concern scientists had, wondering if they had picked the right spot for the Curiosity rover to land (Gale Crater).
“You can imagine the relief landing there, and then, almost right off the bat, we do find evidence of water, and we see an ancient river bed. We are now finding an environment in the near subsurface, you know, not too far beneath the oxide layer, of finding a sort of a neutral rock, all the things that we were really hoping for, to find a place that could have been inhabitable in its past. So, as far as I’m concerned this is fantastic, all the rest is gravy in terms of how the rover is going to go about looking around this area . . .because it definitely was . . . all the indications of being an inhabitable environment at one point in time,” he surmised.
Asked about how well the Curiosity rover handles on Mars, Grotzinger said, “It’s a capable vehicle; it does as well as a four-wheel-drive car.”
He also joked how Curiosity’s robotic arm can stretch out long enough to dunk a basketball.
When asked if Grotzinger would rather have humans than robots on Mars, he replied having humans on Mars would be better than robots. What would take two years to be accomplished by robots, would just take two days using human astronauts, he commented.
When asked what one moment of the Curiosity mission stands out for him, Grotzinger answered, “The night you land, and you realize the moment when they hand the keys over to you. It [Curiosity rover] is a priceless national asset. The rover might be driving around there in 10 to 20 years.”
The next Mars rover mission will be launched in 2020.
Grotzinger said this will be a “sample return mission” with one rover gathering Martian rocks. The rocks collected would be returned to Earth in a future rover mission.
The homepage for NASA’s Curiosity rover is
To listen to the Minnesota Public Radio-recorded audio from the Science Night Minnesota Mission to Mars at the Fitzgerald Theater, go to

Follow the Curiosity rover and its mission on Facebook and Twitter at: and