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Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Mars visit via the Fitzgerald Theater

By Mark Ollig

Recently, yours truly attended the Mission to Mars presentation at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

John Grotzinger, chief scientist of NASA’s Mars Curiosity mission, spoke for a couple of hours before a capacity crowd.

The event was moderated by Tom Weber of Minnesota Public Radio.

Curiosity is the latest NASA rover traversing the surface of Mars after its highly complex landing last August nicknamed, “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

It takes seven minutes for the rover (attached to the descent stage inside of a protective back shell capsule), to go from the top of the Martian atmosphere to its surface.

Unlike the Mars landings of rovers Opportunity and Spirit, each cushioned inside with inflated airbags to protect them when they landed and bounced along the surface until they stopped, the Curiosity landing was precisely controlled.

The capsule containing the Curiosity rover detached from the rocket which brought it from Earth, as it begins to enter the Martian upper atmosphere.

The attached aeroshell heat shield is subjected to temperatures of up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit as it enters the atmosphere; however, inside the capsule, it is a cool 50 degrees.

At approximately 13 miles above the surface, the friction from Mars atmosphere dramatically slows the capsule from 13,200 to 1,000 miles per hour.

At the seven-mile point in its descent, a parachute opens.

This parachute is the largest and strongest super-sonic parachute ever made.

Although it only weighs 100 pounds, the parachute needs to withstand 65,000 pounds of force.

The capsule’s heat shield drops off when it’s about five miles from the surface.

Five seconds go by and the capsule’s radar system activates. This determines its speed and altitude, which is needed in order to calculate when to begin a rocket-powered descent.

One minute and 20 seconds from when the heat shield drops off, the capsule and its connected parachute disconnect from the descent stage, and drift away.

This leaves the descent stage and its precious connected cargo, Curiosity, in a free fall, traveling towards the planet.

It’s a mile above the surface, and descending at a speed of 170 miles per hour.

At 4,224 feet above the surface, eight retrorockets, attached to the descent stage, fire. They maneuver the descent stage away from the falling empty capsule and attached parachute in order to avoid any chance of collision.

Here is where it gets complicated in the course of the landing.

NASA calls this next sequence the Sky Crane maneuver.

John Grotzinger jokingly called it, “Rover on a rope.”

Imagine a huge sky crane lowering a steel beam from a skyscraper to the ground. The steel beam in this example is the 2,000-pound Curiosity, being lowered by the descent stage as it travels at only 1.7 miles per hour towards the Martian surface, which is now roughly 490 feet away.

At approximately 45 feet from the surface, four of the eight descent stage’s retrorockets shut themselves off, as three 21-foot nylon ropes (supporting the rover); along with an information-relaying “umbilical cord,” immediately spool out from the descent stage, which is still connected to the rover vehicle.

At 25 feet from the surface, these nylon ropes slowly lower the Curiosity rover, towards the surface of Mars.

Approximately 16 feet from the surface, and traveling at 1.3 miles per hour, Curiosity’s six wheels and suspension system are lowered (like a commercial aircraft’s landing gear prior to landing).

With the nylon cables fully spooled out, the rover gently touches down onto the surface of Mars while the four retrorockets are still firing.

The descent stage sensors know the rover is now on the ground, because the weight on the nylon cables has been drastically reduced.

The nylon ropes, along with the umbilical cords disconnect from the rover.

The ropes and umbilical are still connected to the descent stage, as it quickly flies away and crashes (as planned) about 500 feet from the rover.

The seven minutes of terror are over.

The rover had safely landed on the surface of Mars, inside the 96-mile wide Gale crater, which was formed during a meteor impact about 3.5 billion years ago. This crater is thought to have held significant amounts of water in its past.

The time here in Minnesota was 12:32 a.m. Aug. 6, 2012, and yes, I was watching this event as it happened on NASA TV.

I learned that over 500,000 lines of computer programming code were used during this complicated landing.

According to Adam Steltzner, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the successful landing was also “the result of reasoned engineering and thought.”

“Once upon a time, Mars and Earth were very similar,” Grotzinger said during his talk at the Fitzgerald Theater.

During a press conference held March 12, NASA announced Curiosity had discovered proof of past water on Mars.

“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life, that probably if this water was around, and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” Grotzinger said.

For many of us in the Fitzgerald Theater, the big question we were waiting to have answered was whether Curiosity could prove if there was actual life on Mars during its past.

Be sure to read next week’s Bits & Bytes for the conclusion of this column.

Oh, and Randy – thank you very much for the tickets.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

First 'laptop' computer shown 30 years ago

By Mark Ollig


It was May 1983, and at the Anaheim National Computer Conference, history, of sorts, was being made.

The smallest and most light weight portable computer at that time was introduced to the public.

It was called the Gavilan Mobile Computer – and it received much attention.

Many consider the Gavilan to be the first true battery-powered, portable laptop computer.

The sleek-looking, full-featured Gavilan computer was the creation of Manuel Fernandez, the founder of the Gavilan Computer Corporation.

The Gavilan was originally designed to use a 3-inch 320K micro-floppy disk drive, but ended up being shipped using a 320K 3.5-inch floppy disk drive.

Most personal computers during this time (including mine) were using 5.25-inch floppy disks.

The Gavilan was, in fact, very “laptop-like” as it measured 11.4 inches square by 2.7 inches high, and weighed in at a manageable 9 pounds.

The top model Gavilan computer used a Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) screen showing 16 lines by 80 characters.

This screen was inside a durable black plastic case. During transit, the screen closed downward, protecting the full-size standard keyboard.

An external monochrome monitor could be plugged into the video output connection on the Gavilan.

An optional “snap-on” printer (which weighed 4 pounds), could also be attached to the computer.

Gavilan’s central processing unit was a 16-bit Intel 8088 chip operating at 5 MHz (megahertz).

The Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS 2.11 version) was the operating system mostly used on the Gavilan, to control how the user would interact with software applications and hardware.

The software packages which could run on this computer included a word processing program called SuperWriter, and a business spreadsheet program called SuperCalc.

SuperCalc was developed back in 1980, and was originally used in 1981 on the Osborne 1 portable computer.

SuperCalc was similar to VisiCalc, which was used on the Apple II computer around 1983.

By the way, the Osborne 1 “portable” computer weighed in at around 24 pounds.

Data communication over dial-up telephone lines was possible using Gavilan’s communication software package and its built-in direct-connect 300 baud modem.

This computer included 48K of Read Only Memory (ROM). Information held in ROM is permanently stored and is mostly used for carrying out hardware\firmware instructions.

The Gavilan contained 96K of Random Access Memory (RAM) for managing software programs.

Additional RAM and software applications could be added by using small, plug-in rectangular modules. Each 32K “CapsuleRam” module cost $350. Four module slots were available on the Gavilan.

I recall my 1983 IBM personal desktop computer came equipped with 256K of RAM.

Around 1984, I took off the cover and added another 256K, to give it 512K of RAM. Yours truly was pleased with this accomplishment, and felt very “techie” after this.

The Gavilan used 64K of Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) memory which held its non-volatile memory, such as its Basic Input Output System (BIOS) information. The information stored on the CMOS is maintained by a small battery constantly powering it.

It included, what was in 1983 an innovative touch-pad user interface.

This solid-state touch-pad was located above the keyboard.

Several files, menus, and interactive icons were available on the Gavilan’s screen.

To interact with them, a person used their finger like a mouse and scrolled on the touchpad; a floating curser on the screen would go where the user pointed their finger.

The user would tap on the desired icon in order to select it.

The file drawer, trash bin, document, and file folder icons could be accessed in this manner.

The Gavilan computer was able to operate from eight to nine hours, using its nickel-cadmium batteries. It was said 80 percent of its battery power could be recharged within one hour.

Here is a link to a compilation of photographs of the Gavilan yours truly collected:

The price for a Gavilan computer with 96K of RAM, and a 16-line by 80-character display screen was around $4,000.

The lower-priced model Gavilan SC was equipped with 64K of RAM and an eight line by 80-character display screen, it sold for about $3,000.

Although expensive, the smart design of this new mobile computer was ahead of its time in 1983.

The Gavilan had the potential to become one of the more popular laptop computers, if it were not for the financial difficulties the company encountered.

Sadly, serious cash-flow problems beleaguered Fernandez’s Gavilan Computer Corporation during the Gavilan’s ongoing development.

The company was forced to file for chapter 11 protections during 1983.

Although the company began shipments of the Gavilan in 1984, it still ended up going out of business in 1985.

By this time, other computing manufacturers were making their own laptop computers.

Laptop computers were and still are popular computing devices.

Long live the laptop!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Future mobile communication devices

By Mark Ollig

What will a mobile communication device be like in 10 to 15 years?

One common answer is: “It will be a chip implanted in our head.”

Yours truly believes using silicon (or germanium-based) communication chips imbedded in our heads as a practical means for communicating with one another, will be the stuff of science fiction for quite a while.

I feel the problem with current, portable smartphone devices are the screens. They are too small, which makes it difficult to see text, video, and pictures.

Personally, I fault my middle-aged eyes.

If we go with a larger display screen, our mobile phone no longer remains a device one can easily carry, or wear in a shirt pocket.

The size of an iPad and similar display devices would be too large to carry around as our main mobile communication device.

The mobile telephones of the future will need adjustable display screens capable of being increased and reduced in size. They might be folded like a wallet, or rolled up to the size of a pen.

For years, yours truly has been a proponent for having mobile devices include a built-in mini-projector. This projector could send the contents of the display screen onto a wall, or table.

When I enthusiastically told my oldest son of my idea, he shook his head.

Well, I still feel it’s a good idea.

Researchers at the Darmstadt University of Technology, located in Darmstadt, Germany have released a study suggesting what they feel mobile telephones will be like in 10 to 15 years.

The university’s website proposes the display screens of future mobile phones will “merge virtual and physical reality.”

The mobile phone’s camera will not only take a picture, or record a video; it will also be able to cross-reference what it sees with other information.

One example is of an architect’s mobile phone camera being focused on a particular historical building. Information could be obtained on how it looked in the 1920s. A referenced picture from the 1920s would be overlayed in 3-D fashion upon the existing building in the display screen for comparison.

One future-concept mobile phone device developed features a passive, “rollable” display screen.

This display screen can be rolled out or back in on itself, in order to increase or decrease its physical size.

Since the display screen size is physically changeable, a picture or video being viewed can become larger or smaller.

Also, a person’s interface with the device’s digital content will become more interactive.

For example, certain physical motions when operating the rolling display screen can be interpreted as zooming in or out, on the specific area being viewed.

Reading lots of text without reducing its font size is accomplished by simply pulling the ends of the device further apart to expand the screen size. The text is read similar to how one reads text on a paper or parchment scroll.

“Users will have their hands full simultaneously manipulating the display and the telephone’s controls,” said Professor Max Muhlhauser, head of the Telecooperation Lab at the university.

These future mobile devices will also require better power utilization than we currently use. New powerful, microscopic batteries now being developed could someday be used.

Mobile phone apps (applications), such as Scan & Go, or Square Wallet, allow our mobile phones to quickly pay for products we buy in a store, or at the drive-thru when purchasing our favorite coffee.

Today, most road tolls are collected using cash; in the near future; they will be collected wirelessly and electronically.

California’s FasTrak pre-paid electronic toll road collection system provides iPhone or Android mobile device users a free app. This app allows the user’s mobile device to be quickly scanned for collecting toll road charges. Using this app, no stopping of a user’s vehicle at the toll road booth is needed.

The Darmstadt University of Technology researchers say future mobile telephone networks will be required to handle higher transmission speeds than currently being used.

Recently, Samsung, based in South Korea, announced they have developed a means of transmitting huge amounts of cellular data over frequencies much higher and faster than those being used today.

The best wireless mobile phone technology currently available for a smart device is 4G.

By 2020, Samsung says it will be marketing 5G.

Samsung stated 5G will allow enormous amounts of data to be sent over our mobiles devices “practically without limitation.”

In a world with 5G networks, a super-high-definition video could be downloaded in just seconds.

This could be the wireless network environment fast enough to interact with the future devices Darmstadt University of Technology is talking about.

We all know about the Internet cloud, and how we are becoming more connected with it.

Future mobile communication devices will be connected to portions of the cloud at all times. Professor Muhlhauser calls these mobile portions of the cloud, “cloudlets.”

The one concern Professor Muhlhauser expressed, was that of “the security infrastructure currently housed in insecure mobile telephones.”

Whatever the future communications gadget, we will certainly want our personal and financial information being protected inside a mobile device we can trust.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Modern 'Mood Ring' sensing technology

by Mark Ollig

Those of you in high school during the mid-1970s will no doubt remember seeing them being worn by other students.

Mood rings were all the rage in pop culture starting around 1975.

When I was a sophomore in high school, many of the kids were wearing mood rings, or asking to wear one “to see if they really worked.”

When worn, the liquid crystal underneath the clear capsule covering on the ring would change colors based upon the “mood” or state of mind of the wearer.

It was said the color really changed because of the variance in body and surrounding air temperature.

However, it was more fun believing the mood ring was changing colors due to the emotions of the wearer.

A person wearing a mood ring was in a relaxed, calm, stress-free mood if the ring’s color was green or blue.

A yellowish color meant a person was in a state of heightened creativity, or in a light-hearted, humorous, happy, and fun mood.

Red was an indication of increased physical energy, stamina, passion, and vitality.

Brown was a sign of being nervous, and edgy.

Black suggested the ring wearer was in a tense, anxious, or overworked mood.

Gray revealed the person was under stress.

So, your question is whether yours truly wore a mood ring? Yes, of course I tried one on.

I recall the mood ring turning blue, signifying I was in a relaxed, peaceful state. Of course, I tried it on outside during the winter when the temperature was cold, so the bluish color was probably attributable to this.

Mood rings eventually went the way of the pet rock craze, although they remained a fashion accessory for a long time.

There’s an old saying, “What goes around, comes around.”

Let’s welcome back today’s new and improved individual mood sensor.

Yes indeed folks but this time it’s not a ring.

It’s a new smartphone app (application) advertised as Emotion Sense.

This app keeps track of a user’s emotions and moods via its algorithmic, behavioral pattern recognition abilities.

This is a free app, and is currently available for your Android smartphone.

Emotion Sense is the psychology research project being conducted by the University of Cambridge.

“Mobile phones represent an ideal computing platform to monitor behavior and movement, since they are part of the everyday life of billions of people,” as stated by a paper from the University of Cambridge Computer Lab.

In the past, savvy Internet social media users continually recorded, and publically broadcasted their daily life activities by wearing a video camera and voice recorder linked to the Internet.

This was called lifecasting.

Lifecaster’s would broadcast in real-time to an online social network their personally recorded diary, where it was viewed by the online public.

The University of Cambridge mentioned this, but said the persons monitoring their own behavior knew it was being monitored; in fact, they were probably overly aware of it, leading to biased psychology results when analyzed.

Mobile phones provide a more “unobtrusive” means of attaining the user’s true emotional behavior and interactions, states the paper.

User information is gathered from the output of the monitoring sensors in a smartphone.

Specific sensors are used to monitor a user’s speech, and recognize emotional behavior.

Each monitoring sensor will log all events into a “knowledge base,” which stores all the information obtained from the sensors within the smartphone.

Emotion Sense was designed by psychologists for everyday users, and patients being treated to chart their feelings.

The Emotion Sense app also interacts with a user by asking them to assess how they feel, using an “emotion grid” user feedback questionnaire.

Depending upon the user’s response, the smartphone app will then conduct a brief interactive survey, to focus more on the user’s particular emotional state.

Social psychology experiments will have a new perspective from the use of mobile sensing technology. Mobile sensing technology has the potential to provide better accuracy, and thus better results, according to the Cambridge University paper.

Cambridge University researchers collected 24 hours’ worth of information from 12 users who wore a Nokia 6210 mobile phone with Emotion Sense technology.

This information was run through various psychological benchmark tests.

“Behind the scenes, smartphones are constantly collecting data that can turn them into a key medical and psychological tool. Any smartphone now comes with numerous sensors that can tell you about aspects of your life, like how active you are, or how sociable you have been in the past 24 hours. In the long term, we hope to be able to extract that data so that, for example, it can be used for therapeutic purposes,” explained Dr. Neal Lathia, a researcher with the University of Cambridge Computer Lab.

The research paper concludes by saying the real-time information collected can be used by social scientists to recognize a person’s pattern of interaction, and provide psychological help for an individual user, or a patient.

To read the complete University of Cambridge paper about using mobile telephone sensing technology for social psychology research, go to

For a description of the Emotion Sense Android smartphone app, check out