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Thursday, August 29, 2013

It's like driving an iPhone

by Mark Ollig

The calendar says September, and for many of us Labor Day signals the official end of summer – although we know there’s still plenty of summer-like weather left.

As some of you may know, for the last few months, yours truly has been car shopping.

Yes, the time has come to retire my use of conveyance manufactured during the last century, and embrace the latest automotive transportation of the 21st century.

Actually, I had enjoyed driving my trusty, old 1999 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor with the big V8 engine.

One favorite story about this car I have told many times is, while waiting at a four-way stop or red light, I would notice the person in the next car moving their head forward, intently looking at my car; they would then quickly reach around their shoulder and put on their seatbelt.

I suppose they maybe thought I was an undercover officer driving the Police Interceptor. Of course, the fact I had the “Police Interceptor” name plate on the car might have influenced them a bit, too.

Over the last 14 years, I would guess 100 people have reached for their seatbelts upon seeing the Police Interceptor driving down the street. This usually brought a smile to my face, as I felt a good deed was performed in knowing someone else was now wearing their seatbelt.

Others, after putting on their seatbelt and driving by me, realized I was not a police officer, and was not driving a “real” police car. These folks would cast a frown at me, as if I had been intentionally fooling them – which, of course, I wasn’t.

Anyway, my most-of-the-time reliable Police Interceptor got me through the heavy snow of many winters. I also felt somewhat protected being surrounded by all the heavy steel. Its gas mileage wasn’t the best, so there were some trade-offs.

With 232,000 miles on it, and the increased frequency of replacing parts, I knew the time had come to retire the Police Interceptor.

Over the years, I had become accustomed to the daily pattern of using my car key for unlocking the door, and starting the Police Interceptor, or any other vehicle for that matter.

I was in for a surprise when I learned the new 2013 car required no key to start it. It only needed one foot on the brake, and the push of a button.

Oh, and no key is necessary to unlock the car door.

I shook my head while watching the salesperson demonstrate how to gain entry to the locked car, needing only to have the car’s keyless access pad in their pocket.

The salesperson reached for and held onto the drivers-side car door handle in order for its wireless radio sensor to pick up the signal from the access pad. After a couple seconds, the sound of the driver’s car door is heard being unlocked.

Remember folks, I am a newbie when it comes to these new cars, and find all the technology in them impressive.

Truthfully, I felt a little overwhelmed when I first sat down in the driver’s seat and gazed at all of the car’s built-in technology, electronics, and displays.

It felt like sitting down in front of a computer console onboard the futuristic USS Enterprise.

The first thing I needed to learn was how to turn the radio on.

In addition to the familiar AM and FM, this new car came equipped with a satellite radio receiver.

The satellite radio and Global Positioning System in my new car get their signals from commercial satellites in a geostationary orbit approximately 22,000 miles above the earth; and yes, I was impressed.

I was like a kid opening the first present during Christmas. I fiddled with the car’s central display screen; it showed detailed information about the car’s gas mileage, tire pressure, and other particulars of the car’s internal systems.

The CD player seemed to be a bit out-of-place. These days, I download most of my music off of the Internet and onto my iPod, which I learned can be connected to the car’s USB port.

Next month, I hope to buy one of the new iPhones and sync it via Bluetooth to the new car. Many of the iPhone’s features and apps will then become accessible via the car’s central display screen.

Another technological item I like on the new car is its built-in navigation, or Global Positioning System (GPS).

It wasn’t very difficult at all to press the correct touch-sensitive labels in order to program and map the destination I wanted.

The salesperson informed me I could also talk to the car and tell it where I wanted to go.

After doing this, the car’s navigation display showed the route on a 3D map. As I traveled, the navigation system visually mapped my route progress, and verbally guided me along the trip.

The car’s state-of-the-art voice-recognition system not only understands speech commands for entering travel destinations, but also for changing radio stations.

When placed into reverse, the car’s built-in rear-view camera shows what is directly behind it on the display screen.

Yours truly has been driving this car for a couple of weeks, and loves the new technology in it.

My wallet also appreciates the car’s efficient fuel economy.

With all the advanced technology inside this new car, it’s like I recently told my brother: “I feel I’m driving an iPhone down the highway.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where's our Jetson's trash-collecting robot?

by Mark Ollig

Many Saturday mornings during the late 1960s saw this 9-year-old sitting on the upstairs living room floor in front of the TV, watching cartoons.

I marveled how “The Jetsons” had Rosie (the robotic maid with an attitude) to do their household chores.

Sometimes I would daydream about having a robot to do my chores, too.

Unfortunately, this delightful boyhood fantasy soon vanished as I was brought back to reality upon hearing my father’s voice calling me from downstairs, “Mark! Come down and take out the trash can in the kitchen!”

Now remember, folks, this was during a time when we did not use today’s convenient, pleasantly scented, wastebasket plastic bags with the handy, built-in tie-string.

After a young yours truly lifted and carried the (heavy) trash can out of the kitchen and down the outside concrete steps, I faced my next challenge: dumping the kitchen refuse into one of the tall, metal garbage cans inside the garage.

Of course, sometimes these garbage cans were almost full (garbage collection day was Tuesday), and so one would need to “stomp down” on the trash in order to make room.

Being I was 9 years old, I did not want to call on one of my older brothers for help; I thought, “I can do this by myself!”

So, after a few energetic jumping foot-stomps, I was able to compact the trash down far enough to make room to empty out the refuse from the kitchen’s trash can.

Triumphantly marching up the concrete steps, I opened the front door; proudly carrying in the freshly emptied trash can. My dad, who was watching from his chair at the kitchen table, nodded and smiled.

I placed the empty trash can in the middle of the kitchen and prepared for its reuse.

Next, the search began for old newspapers under the kitchen cabinets.

Yes, we used newspaper to line the kitchen trash can.

Now, lining the trash can with newspaper was something of a learned craft. I mean, one needed to use enough newspaper (especially on the bottom) to ensure any offending substances put inside would not leak through the newspaper before it was time to take out the trash can again.

A person could consider lining the trash can with newspaper as part engineering, and part art form.

You needed to make sure the newspaper securely-wrapped the inner circle of the trash can.

One also wanted to be sure the newspaper would fit tightly around the upper, rounded lid of the trash can so it would not come loose, all while fashioning it into an acceptable appearance.

Most important for this 9-year-old, was having the freshly newspaper-lined kitchen trash can be good enough to pass inspection by his father who would occasionally check on my progress while drinking his Saturday morning cup of coffee.

Once I completed the newspaper lining of the trash can to the best of my ability, I returned it to its normal location and glanced over to my dad, who smiled at me while nodding his head in approval for a job well done.

In addition to the satisfaction of having my father’s recognition for completing this chore, I was also guaranteed of receiving my weekly allowance.

A few years ago, an experimental robot was built which would travel to your location and take away your trash.

Researchers at the Scuole Superiore Sant-Anna University in the Pisa Province of Pisa, Italy, created a robotic trash-remover called DustCart.

This trash-collecting robot is nearly 5 feet tall, has a circumference of 5 feet 6 inches, and weighs 154 pounds. Its garbage collection hopper holds 21 gallons, or a little over 66 pounds of trash. DustCart can travel just over 2 mph.

DustCarts are publicized as “Networked and Cooperating Robots for Urban Hygiene.”

One demonstration video shows a registered user calling DustCart for trash removal service.

A few minutes later, a DustCart robot came rolling up to the person’s location on its Segway-like mobile platform.

It then is sent the person a text message telling them it has arrived.

A command entered into the DustCart via its user interface touchscreen, causes the empty garbage collection hopper to become accessible.

After the person places their trash bag into the hopper, it retracts back inside of the DustCart, which then begins its journey to a rubbish collecting station where it automatically drops off the bag of trash.

DustCart operates using a lithium battery-powered engine, and avoids collisions using motion sensors.

The internal battery allows it to travel about 10 miles.

Watching DustCart roaming around reminded me of the 2008 Disney-Pixar movie about a futuristic trash-collecting robot named WALL-E.

The video of DustCart in action can be seen at

Nowadays, when I empty out my kitchen’s wastebasket, I use those convenient, pleasantly scented, wastebasket plastic bags with the handy, built-in tie-string – and sometimes remember the 9-year-old boy lining the household kitchen trash can with newspaper, and looking up to see his father smiling at him while nodding his head approvingly.

I would like to conclude this week’s column by wishing my mom a very happy birthday.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

NASA to use 3D printer in space

by Mark Ollig

With a working robot (Robonaut 2) already completing tasks onboard the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has decided to send up another high-tech device.

You’ve read about 3D printers in my Feb. 18 column. Soon, a 3D printer will be sent up to the ISS.

NASA’s “3-D Printing in Zero-G Experiment” was begun in October 2012.

This experiment was to prove the viability of using 3D printer hardware to “fabricate components and equipment on demand for manned missions to the space station and other destinations in the solar system,” according to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Made in Space Inc. of Moffett Field, CA, is a company which manufactures parts used in space. This company has built and tested the new 3D space printer.

“In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space,” explained NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?” suggested Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space.

To me, this is all starting to sound like a “Star Trek” episode, where the crew uses the ship’s replicator to create a needed part or tool.

Testing of the specially designed 3D printer in near-zero gravity conditions or microgravity, was successfully completed onboard an airplane known as a “reduced gravity aircraft.” This aircraft flies a series of parabolic flight maneuvers which counter the forces of gravity on Earth. While in the air, each parabolic flight can simulate temporary states of near-zero gravity for about 20 seconds.

This 3D printer uses extrusion additive manufacturing; objects are created layer-by-layer from polymers and other materials.

A video by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, explains how problems onboard the ISS will be solved by using the 3D printer.

“3D printing provides us the ability to be able to do our own Star Trek replication right there on the spot to help us replace things we’ve lost, replace things we’ve broken, or maybe make things we’ve thought that can be useful,” said NASA astronaut Timothy “TJ” Creamer.

Parts to be 3D printed include frequently used shelving accessories.

A 3D printer delivers advantages to the ISS astronauts and mission specialists; such as not having to wait for replacement parts to be sent from Earth.

Made in Space is responsible for designing the 3D printing hardware, and NASA is providing insight into key design areas and into the testing for flight certification, according to Niki Werkheiser, 3D Print project manager in the Marshall Space Flight Center Technology Development & Transfer Office.

Programming instructions on how a particular part is to be printed can be preloaded onto the 3D printer itself, or uploaded from Earth.

“The ability to not have to manifest mass and launch it to resupply ourselves is the most important,” reasoned Creamer, in reference to the advantages of making parts using 3D printers while in space.

Allowing ISS crew members the capability of creating parts needed using a 3D printer instead of having to include the parts in future cargo shipments from Earth, will result in real cost savings. Although it is too early to know for sure the amount of cost savings it will be significant; “it will pay for itself a million times over,” said Werkheiser.

Not only will NASA save time and money using a 3D printer for creating or replacing parts and tools needed onboard the ISS, 3D printers will prove to be essential when we begin future deep-space missions.

“The greater the distance from Earth and the longer the mission duration, the more difficult it is to resupply materials,” said Werkheiser.

“We also look forward to using this technology as an educational tool offering students the opportunity to design and build parts for missions,” she added.

When humans eventually go to Mars, I predict a few 3D printers will be accompanying them on the voyage.

To boldly go where no 3D printer has gone before seems to be the latest mission for Made in Space, as they state on their website: “The Made in Space and NASA team envisions a future where space missions can be virtually self-sufficient and manufacture most of what they need in space. This includes such things as consumables, common tools, and replacements for lost or broken parts, and eventually even such things as CubeSats (small, deployable satellites).”

NASA has scheduled a June 2014 cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Included with this mission’s shipment will be the new Made in Space 3D printer hardware.

It will be packaged with other cargo onboard a SpaceX designed Falcon 9 rocket, and stored inside the Dragon pressurized space capsule attached to the top of the rocket.

You can watch “3-D Printing in Zero Gravity,” the video uploaded by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, at

The website for Made in Space is

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is the Internet evolving into?

by Mark Ollig

We know the Internet consists of physical hardware like routers, data servers, computers, and cabling.

And of course, this hardware is interconnected and communicates with each other using the programs contained within the software code stored inside databases.

Actually, it’s incredible how it all works, when one stops to think about it.

And, has it really been 20 years since we started surfing the Web using a Mosaic browser?

We’re regularly using the Internet for email, work, accessing websites, blogging, participating in chat room discussions, and interacting within our social networks.

The Internet also allows us a virtual presence to see and hear the activity occurring in just about any place in the world, via the real-time cameras connected to it.

Some days I feel we are becoming “embedded” inside the Internet.

The Internet now provides everyone with access to practically the sum total of human knowledge from almost anywhere on the planet.

In 1910, providing global access to all human knowledge was the dream of Paul Otlet.

Otlet had diligently labored on creating a depository for all of the world’s information. The staggering amount of paper documentation collected was archived in his “Mundaneum.”

He came to understand the ultimate answer for creating true global accessibility to this depository of knowledge and information would require replacing paper documentation with some other viewable storage medium, along with a method to easily access it from anywhere in the world.

Years ago, before the Web became popular on the Internet, I started a local online dial-up Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS).

A local BBS was a “virtual community,” a term cyberspace writer Howard Rheingold coined.

The early 1990s was an exciting and promising time as we looked to the future, and wondered; what could be accomplished using computers within an online virtual community?

Today, most BBS traffic has moved onto the ever-expanding Internet; its tentacles are reaching into almost every facet of our daily lives and it shows no sign of slowing down.

“This thing is still evolving,” you will recall Vinton Cerf saying about the Internet in last week’s column.

The question I am asking: “What is the Internet evolving into?”

For one thing, the Internet has become the gathering place for people to engage in social dialogue and chat regarding local, state, national and world issues, along with politics, current events, and breaking news stories. Personal issues also receive a lot of discussion.

I do find it frustrating and even a bit disheartening, that on many US news websites and chat rooms, instead of constructive discussions regarding an issue, many user comments end up becoming vehement personal or political attacks directed towards those expressing an opinion, or making a statement.

We have a name for these unruly online folks: “trolls.”

According to the Urban Dictionary, a troll is: “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”

However, on a positive note, yours truly notices when reading the local citizen comments made on various foreign websites (such as the BBC), the remarks addressing a story rarely contain personal or political attacks directed against the individuals expressing their opinions.

Instead, these online users engage in a healthy, constructive, and respectful discussion with one another – which I, for one, find very refreshing, and hope will be seen in more online chats.

“We are rapidly evolving a global, immersive, invisible, ambient, computing environment with a proliferation of sensors, cameras, software and databases,” says Imagining the Internet Center, based at Elon University, in Elon, NC.

Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet Center, raises a multitude of concerns regarding the future of the Internet, including: free expression, piracy, security, trust, economic development, human relationships, and how human rights will evolve.

According to Anderson, we need to be asking and answering questions in order to develop how our future with the Internet will be.

As for my thoughts, the Internet must remain a free and equally accessible venue where everyone has an opportunity to openly express their thoughts and opinions.

The Internet needs to continue to grow as a global virtual community, where all of us can contribute to it, whether by participating in citizen journalism, discussing local community issues in chat rooms, starting our own personal website or blog, uploading life event videos, or recording political or personal podcast’s.

The Internet needs to freely evolve into a place where everyone can engage in a mutually beneficial and respectful exchange of dialogue and ideas with the people within their own local community, and with those around the world.

The Internet has evolved into an essential resource for fostering society’s continued learning, the sharing of knowledge, and for getting our news.

We are using the Internet more for civic involvement in our local, state, and federal government.

It also continues to evolve as a venue for the growth of global entrepreneurial business and commerce.

And of course, we can look for the Internet to grow as a place for experiencing the enjoyment of its entertainment offerings.

The Imagining the Internet Center can be reached using