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Monday, December 28, 2015

Thoughts about this past year

by Mark Ollig

Someone once told me, “As you get older, time will seem to go by faster.”

They were right.

This will be the last Bits and Bytes column for 2015.

I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading them, as much as I have writing them.

Every week, your humble columnist opens his Microsoft Word program, and sees the familiar, blank white page staring back at me, devoid of sentences.

I think of it as a new artist’s canvas, just waiting to be splattered with words.

So, for the 52nd time this year, let’s pick up the word brush and paint some paragraphs.

Looking at today’s technological landscape, a growing number of people seemingly take announcements of new or improved technology for granted.

Is society’s interest in new tech becoming so lackluster, that whenever it sees a new or improved device or technology, they’ll just nod, and then go back to their routine lives, or re-immerse themselves inside their virtual entertainment and social media networks?

Of course, not everyone’s lives are routine, or immersed.

My point is, there appears to be none of the great excitement or fanfare whenever a new technology revelation bursts onto the scene as in years past.

Remember how you felt when the very first iPhone was revealed eight years ago?

“An iPod, a phone, an Internet mobile communicator. An iPod, a phone, an Internet mobile communicator . . .these are not three separate devices!” Apple’s Steve Jobs repeated while onstage, before an awestruck audience inside the Moscone Convention Center, in San Francisco.

Jobs emphasized all these features were inside one small, thin device a person could easily operate touching a glass surface.

Audience members began to understand what Jobs was trying to impart to them.

Their applause increased; cheers began cascading throughout the auditorium towards a smiling Steve Jobs.

As of late, we have not experienced these kinds of breath-taking, technological breakthroughs like we did in 2007.

Recently, it seems most announcements are about “enhancements” to existing technology and electronic devices.

Perhaps we have become so lulled with new technology announcements, we’re finding them monotonous.

Some of my readers will recall life 40 years ago, when it was much less “technologically hectic.”

In late 1975, the first Sony Betamax tape cassette cartridges and video recording machines were being sold in the US.

Yours truly lived and worked in Winsted for many years; however, I attended my junior and senior years of high school in Brainerd.

For a time, my family and I lived in the wondrous “Brainerd Lakes Area.”

During my junior year at Brainerd High School, I enrolled in the AV (Audio/Visual) class.

The AV class had ways of earning extra credit, one of which was to come in during the evening and record public service educational programs broadcast over-the-air.

We would then catalog, and add the new video recordings to the school’s Betamax videotape library.

Yours truly operated the videotape recording, and considered the Betamax videotape recording machine as a high-tech device – hey, it was the ‘70s.

I remember spending hours operating the Sony Betamax recording machine in the school’s small AV room.

The quality of those Betamax videotape recordings as actually pretty good.

A year later, a new video-cassette tape recording format by JVC (Victor Company of Japan) came out. It was called Video Home System (VHS).

And so began the late-great 1970s “videotape war” between Betamax and VHS.

To my millennial readers: This would be comparable to when the Blu-Ray Disc came out in 2003, and competed with the DVD (Digital Versatile Disc), which had been around since 1997.

Even though the Betamax was a smaller-sized cassette cartridge, and had superior video quality, the public ended up embracing VHS tapes used with VCR’s (Video Cassette Recorder).

I do recall one advantage VHS had over Betamax: their tapes could rewind much faster.

People began VHS videotaping everything on TV, causing some very interesting copyright issues.

This year, we have heard a lot of talk about the benefits of the IoT (Internet of Things), AI (Artificial Intelligence), self-driving cars, 3D printing, robotics, and the involvement of students with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs.

Most of my readers know I enjoy writing columns about the space program – past and present.

“Thanks Snoopy - are you still out there?” was one of my favorite columns from this year.

“Snoopy” was the name of the crew cabin (ascent stage) of the Apollo 10 lunar module used during the May 1969 dress-rehearsal for the landing on the moon, which would happen in July.

And yes, Snoopy is “still out there.”

In fact, Snoopy is the only surviving Apollo lunar module ascent stage still voyaging through space lo these many years.

You can read the May 25 “Thanks Snoopy - are you still out there?” column here:

Will technology in 2016 change the way we live in the future?

Hang on folks; I have a feeling next year will be filled with some interesting surprises.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

'Are you really Santa Claus?'

by Mark Ollig

This marks the 60th year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will be tracking the flight path of a certain jolly old soul, and his famous reindeer sleigh team.
NORAD is always on guard; monitoring the skies, and ready to alert authorities in the event of any threats against North America.
We can sleep better at night knowing NORAD has our backs.
It’s quite an interesting story on how NORAD began tracking Santa and his sleigh team traveling around the world on Christmas Eve.
On Dec. 24, 1955, the Sears, Roebuck and Company department store, located in Colorado Springs, CO, placed a local newspaper advertisement.
This ad showed a picture of a smiling, white-bearded Santa, and the direct telephone number children could dial to talk to him.
“Hey, Kiddies! . . . Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally, any time day or night, or come in and visit me at Sears Toyland,” the newspaper ad read.
As a precaution, the advertisement included, “Kiddies, be sure and dial the correct number!”
Unbeknownst to the newspaper, they had mistakenly printed the wrong telephone number for Santa; one of the digits was incorrect.
Now, imagine a young child in Colorado Springs, picking up the telephone handset, dialing this number, and excitedly listening to the ring-back tone; anticipating what they were going to say to Santa.
It so happened, Dec. 24, 1955, US Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD -- NORAD’s predecessor), was on duty at CONAD headquarters in Colorado Springs.
At that time, CONAD had a top-secret, air defense telephone hotline used only for national emergencies; such as alerting CONAD personnel of any imminent Soviet Union military attacks against the US.
This hotline rang to a red desk phone, located at CONAD headquarters.
Can you guess what the top-secret telephone number was for this phone?
You knew it had to be the same telephone number being advertised in the newspaper for the kids to call Santa on; which, of course, it was.
Sometime on Christmas Eve 1955, the red phone began ringing.
Col. Shoup quickly answered it – thinking an attack may have begun.
Recalling this event years later, Col. Shoup said, “The red phone ringing it’s either the Pentagon calling, or the four-star General Partridge. I was all shook up.”
“So, I picked it up and said, Sir, this is Col. Shoup.”
There was only silence on the hotline.
“Sir, this is Col. Shoup,” he repeated.
“Sir, can you read me alright?” asked Col. Shoup, who said he believed a military general, was calling the hotline telephone.
Imagine his surprise when Col. Shoup hears, “Are you really Santa Claus?” in a little girl’s voice.
Col. Shoup looked around the room at the faces of his office personnel and sternly said, “Somebody’s playing a joke on me, and this isn’t funny!”
“Would you repeat that?” demanded Col. Shoup into the phone, believing it was some prankster randomly dialing telephone numbers.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” the small voice on the other end of the telephone line asked.
It was at about this time Col. Shoup was informed of the local newspaper advertisement mistakenly showing the top-secret telephone number hotline for kids to call Santa on.
Learning this, Col. Shoup’s demeanor changed.
He decided instead of disappointing the little girl, he would answer her as Santa would, saying, “Have you been a good little girl?”
The little girl said she knew Santa would be coming down the fireplace at her house, and that she was leaving some food there for him and the reindeer.
“Oh, boy! They sure will appreciate that!” Col. Shoup recalls telling the now happy little girl on the telephone.
He went on to say the little girl read off a “big, long list of what she wanted [for Christmas].”
Col. Shoup instructed his office team to “act as Santa’s helpers” whenever a child called the hotline number.
He also had his radar operators’ check for signs of Santa’s progress, as his sleigh team traveled from the North Pole that Christmas Eve so it could be reported to the children.
Of course, on this particular Christmas Eve, 1955, CONAD’s red hotline telephone was “ringing off the hook” with children wanting to talk with Santa.
The children calling were provided updates on where Santa Claus and his globe-circling reindeer sleigh team were currently located, via CONAD’s radar tracking system.
From that time on, Col. Shoup became known as “The Santa Colonel.”
He reportedly cherished this nickname until passing away March 14, 2009.
A NORAD video interview of Col. Shoup talking about the special Christmas Eve of 1955 can be seen here,
The official NORAD Tracks Santa website features holiday music, games, Santa Tracker Countdown Clock, Exploring Santa’s North Pole, and other fun activities at
A photo of the Dec. 24, 1955 Colorado Springs newspaper ad can be seen here,
Have a Merry Christmas.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

'Popular Electronics' from December 1958

by Mark Ollig

“Say you saw it in Popular Electronics.”

 These words were highlighted in the December 1958 issue of Popular Electronics magazine.

While thinking of what to write this week, I came across the American Radio History website.

Its online archives were filled with decades-old collections of radio programming schedules, and electronic hobbyist magazines; including Popular Electronics.

How much did this magazine (148 pages) cost in 1958?

You’re right if you guessed 35 cents.

Inside this particular issue, there were detailed step-by-step instructions, neatly diagramed schematic drawings, and a parts list for constructing devices, such as radios, audio stereo speakers, power failure alarm system, ceiling mounted Hi-Fi speakers, appliance tester, and other electronic goodies.

It was very easy to read through this magazine online, as the entire issue was in a portable document format (PDF).

Choosing the December 1958 Popular Electronics magazine had nothing to do with its month and year coinciding with my first Christmas since arriving into this world.

Well, maybe this was the reason I chose it.

To my surprise, I discovered some unexpectedly popular technology topics being written about, as the year 1958 was ending.

In fact, a few of the topics are as popular today as they were back in 1958.

These days, folks are excited about the possibilities; and yet concerned, with the unending advances in technology and automation.

Some feel artificially intelligent robots or sophisticated computer programs could take control of their jobs – or even the world.

Similar feelings were present 57 years ago.

The cover page of this December 1958 issue reads, “Christmas Fun with Electronic Robots.”

The cover shows a painting of what appears to represent robotic parents and a toddler robot, hanging decorations on a green spruce tree inside their home.

On page 45, there is an article titled, “There Are ROBOTS Among Us.”

“Electronic robots, in one form or another, are influencing our daily lives . . . are we due for an “electronic revolution?”” stated the subheading of an article written in 1958 by William Tenn.

This editorial suggests some people believed having robots with human-like brains, would mean they would be doing all the work, while humans enjoyed a life of leisure.

Conversely, there was real fear expressed; “[robots] will replace mankind, they might run amuck and destroy their masters . . . the robots will get us if we don’t watch out,” wrote Tenn.

During the 1950s, many science fiction movies featured evil robots; or good robots altered to perform evil acts on human society.

These movies no doubt helped instill a fear of robots.

One particular robot, which to this day is still remembered, appeared in the 1951 movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”

GORT (Genetically-Organized Robotic Technology) was the 9-foot tall, metal-plated, intimidating automaton from another planet.

It was part of the robotic “interstellar guardian police force,” and protector of the visiting extraterrestrial, yet human-looking, Klaatu.

GORT had the power to destroy the Earth.

The thought of this, of course, would cause a reasonable amount of fear in anybody.

The 1953 movie, “Robot Monster,” featured a 7-foot tall Moon robot named Ro-Man, who wore what looked like a vintage, underwater diver’s helmet.

The 1954 movie, “GOG” featured two robots built in a top-secret underground research base. They were treacherously reprogrammed to eliminate the humans inside the base, but ended up being destroyed.

Probably the most famous robot during 1958 was Robby the Robot.

This 7-foot-6-inch-tall robot, weighing around 300 pounds, was built in 1955 by the MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) studio’s prop department at a reported cost of $125,000.

Robby the Robot was featured in the 1956 movie, “Forbidden Planet,” and in 1957’s, “The Invisible Boy.”

In the midst of all the 1958 robotic pandemonium, a friendly-looking “SPARKY the Robot Pup” was featured on page 51 of the Popular Electronics magazine.

SPARKY the Robot Pup is a small, oval-shaped (resembles an upside-down stainless steel cooking pot), playful-looking robot.

If you saw this cute robotic puppy posted on Facebook, you would immediately click “like.”

Well-written instructions, with detailed diagrams for building your very own, battery-powered, wheel motor-driven, steerable SPARKY (painted with appealing puppy facial features and ears), was included in the article written by Gaylord Welker.

A parts list described the electronic components needed, and places where one could obtain them.

One of the parts sources listed was the Microswitch Division of Minneapolis-Honeywell.

Many ads in this issue referenced Minneapolis locations.

Baily’s School of Electronics had an ad on page 16 saying, “Electronics is the fastest growing industry in America today.”

A photograph of two electronic cabinet bays showed two technicians (presumably Baily graduates) working within its shelf wiring and circuitry.

A message beneath the 1958 photo read, “This Minneapolis-Honeywell system controls hundreds of automatic operations.”

Under the magazine’s “Tools and Gadgets” section, a Model 208 VTVM (Vacuum Tube Volt Meter) was featured.

One could purchase it for $74.50 at the Seco Mfg. Co., on 5015 Penn Ave., South, Minneapolis, MN.

Today, this address is home to Scuba Center.

And so, 57 years later, I can say to you, “I saw it in Popular Electronics.”

Read the complete December 1958 issue at

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Send your own spaceship to the moon

by Mark Ollig

During the wonderment of our childhood, how many of us imagined the adventures of exploring outer space, the moon, or another planet?

We might have even dreamed of building and launching our own spacecraft, and envisioned it traveling away from the Earth, through space, and landing on the moon.

I did, and I would bet some of you nostalgically reading this, thought about it, too.

You and I will be able to realize this unfulfilled childhood dream using the “Pocket Spacecraft.”

“We want anyone to be able to send their own spacecraft into space,” stated Pocket Spacecraft founder Michael Johnson.

Their spacecraft are small enough to fit in one’s pocket; hence the name.

The cost to own your own fully-working spacecraft is very affordable.

The actual spacecraft itself physically resembles a compact disc (CD).

It’s made of a thin-film polyimide substrate, high-performance bonded solar cells, thinned die passive components, sensors, and a metal hoop antenna.

It can even have custom graphics.

The Pocket Spacecraft’s components are protected, using a conformal coating layer film which contours itself over the entire spacecraft.

Solar cells generating a little over 100mW (milliwatt) will power what is essentially a “spacecraft system-on-a-chip.”

Current Pocket Spacecraft models include:

• the Earth Scout Spacecraft;

• the Lunar Scout Spacecraft;

• and the Lunar Scout Special Edition Spacecraft.

Pocket Spacecraft, based in Bristol, UK, is a project for allowing individuals to actively participate during a mission into space, to the moon – and beyond, using their own personalized spacecraft.

One will not be just a passive watcher; an individual “space explorer” will be able to take on an active role in their spacecraft’s design, and its software programming.

Once an individual has secured and selected their spacecraft, they can use Project Spacecraft’s Mission Control Center software on their PC, tablet, or the iOS/Android software app for use on a smartphone.

This software will allow an individual to be directly involved with their spacecraft’s planning and programming, and monitor their personalized Pocket Spacecraft as it is being constructed in the lab.

This monitoring is observable online.

When the spacecraft is completed, one can watch it being loaded into the Interplanetary CubeSat Mothership (CubeSat).

Your spacecraft, along with the others, will be secured inside this CubeSat, which acts as the “bus” your personal spacecraft travels in.

The CubeSat will then be attached to the rocket that will be launched into space.

Project Spacecraft has organized itself to qualify for NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) rocket launches, and rockets provided by commercial space transport providers.

Once the CubeSat is in orbit over the Earth, all of the Earth Scout Spacecraft will be released.

These spacecraft will fall back to the ground, in order to demonstrate their landing capabilities on a planet with an atmosphere; in this instance, the Earth.

Meanwhile, the Earth-orbiting CubeSat, containing all of the Lunar Scout Spacecraft, will begin its months-long journey to the moon.

Once the CubeSat reaches the moon, the Lunar Scout Spacecraft will be released above the moon’s surface.

While over the moon, they will be photographed by the CubeSat, which will then transmit the pictures back to Earth.

The Lunar Scout Spacecraft will land on the moon to complete the mission.

Using the Mission Control Center app on your smartphone, you will be able to hold your phone up to the sky, and have the app point you in the direction to where your spacecraft is located.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

An individual space explorer’s Mission Control Center program will receive data from their spacecraft as it travels beyond (or returns to) the Earth, while it’s in space – or when it lands on the moon, or even another planet.

Status updates and other information is transmitted from the individual spacecraft antenna array via telemetry signals.

The telemetry is received by the Project Spacecraft ground station network on Earth.

Powerful ground satellite stations are needed to receive these weaker signals coming from the individual spacecraft in space.

An individual spacecraft might also direct its information to the CubeSat, which if in range, could relay the information back to Earth.

This information will then forward over the Internet to the Pocket Mission Control Center applications.

The spacecraft trajectory - or course it’s traveling in space - is calculated using “infrequent radio observations.”

Instead of continuous real-time feeds from the spacecraft, an algorithm will be used in the user’s Mission Control Center application software to show the current location of the spacecraft based upon the data as reported from the radio observations.

I learned it is common practice for smaller spacecraft to use this method of infrequent radio observations.

Pocket Spacecraft told me they are currently running simulated missions on “candidate flight hardware” to ensure the embedded software can survive all kinds of “unhelpful events,” including instrument failure and space radiation damage.

I was impressed with the information Project Spacecraft provided me, and with the amount of talent behind their project.

Pocket Spacecraft includes a global team of scientists, engineers, and designers working together at leading universities around the world.

Are you interested in becoming a “citizen space explorer?”

I know I am.

Soon, we can begin our mission into space, using our own, personally-designed spacecraft.

I also like the idea of being the flight director of my own Mission Control Center.

How cool is that?

To get started on this adventure, sign up at the Pocket Spacecraft website,

Specific spacecraft types, pricing, video, and other information can be found at

Follow Project Spacecraft using @mySpacecraft on Twitter.